The Case of Dancing with Death

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Kee Hong Low: Thank you for bringing this up, because I think it was something that we also talked about in the other session: at which point artists are in their career when they are making a work is actually a critical sort of question to ask and to understand. Pichet is now in a different time and space compared to when he was doing his previous big show with the company Black & White a couple of years ago.

When I first knew Pichet, probably 20 years ago, he was just beginning to investigate the context of Khon in contemporary sort of environment. In a sense, at the time, and even still now, his relationship with Khon and the classical community is a very difficult one. Pichet is not really accepted in Thailand. Stuff that he does is considered sacrilegious in Thailand, but in a way for Dancing with Death I think Pichet is also in a different time and space, and we have to recognize also that the ambition of the artist grows over time and that they want to explore something that is not about putting it in a 5 x 5 space or a tiny studio or, like Soji said the other day, a carry-on travel package.

With Dancing with Death you have this installation, which is central and core to the work, and I only recently found out that Pichet’s own research into Buddhism and into, I think, what he is thinking about of late affects his own life as a person as well as an artist. With that I want to invite Pichet to now share with us this process of going towards the making of Dancing with Death in this context of the co-production. What do you think is it that actually facilitated you to have that, I would say, courage to just go for it and to think that you would be able to come to this point?

Pichet Klunchun: I would like to go back in history and explain to you how I create my work. If you look at my past work you would understand that my work develops step-by-step. My work is based on something that is classical and turns it into something that is contemporary. I was thinking one day that in Thailand there were no professional dancers and that I should become one. I would dare to say that I believe that I am the first professional dancer in Thailand. But my knowledge towards dance was still very limited because I was just repeating what I had been taught again and again from my master.

First, my earlier works started with pursuing my knowledge. In this sense, Demon, Nijinsky Siam and Black & White can be said to be my earlier works. Pichet Klunchun and Myself and I am a Demon are works which started with my questions and skepticism about Kohn choreography and dancing. Pichet Klunchun and Myself was a question on the dance structure called Ramayana as a whole. Nijinsky Siam was based on my question on the influence of the dances in the world on Thai traditional dance. And Black & White was about the sublimation and development of techniques.

The thing is that what you see in these four works can be found also in Thai traditional dance. It took 10 years to create these four works, and then I thought, maybe it would be interesting to modernize traditional dance. I thought that it was time to put an end to the combination of the traditional structure and Western techniques.

[English] Do you understand this? Because I want to share… Is this clear? Yeah? Aha. Because in Southeast Asia, all the traditional dancers try to combine. It is their own traditional form and western technique together, and for me, I think this is out of date. It should be finished. We should create something new. That is why I started to create our next production we called Tam Kai.

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

And then I wanted to make the second generation of the company into a different style. Here Dancing with Death comes into the picture. In the first 10 years, I put importance on knowledge building and the team of dancers: training of dance, and then how to conceive questions. In the recent three years, our company changed into something that is sincerer, and I realized that artists are occupied too much with various arrangements. We contact many people to find a space for presenting our production, look for funds that support the production, and in spite of all that, we don’t even know how long we will be able to perform the piece. It was at that time when I realized that we would need to look for people who support us and coordinate things for us through a rational process so that the artists can concentrate on the piece and try to do something more challenging that they have never done.

I was aware from the beginning that the set we conceived was an issue. What we wanted was a problem, what we wanted to do was a problem, so I thought that we should properly understand what kinds of steps we would need to go through. We were lucky to receive the offer of the co-production. I think co-production is very important because it means that financial support is promised, and more importantly, you are offered time for concentrating on your creation. In addition, in our case, we received technical support that we had never imagined of: Mahito Horiuchi from KAAT clarified the technical possibility of building the set the way we wanted it to be. I had designed the set, and had asked various people in Thailand for their opinion. Many of them said it was too architectural, it would be an obstacle to the choreography, etc. But the person who really had knowledge told me that it could be properly used for a performance.

That let us use more time for research for the piece Dancing with Death, and the research resulted in a book. Most importantly, we were able to communicate with people in the region where we did the research, which affected the expression and techniques of the dancers of the company. That’s it for now.

Kee Hong Low: 
Thank you. Obviously we are talking about two very different processes here. Whereas in Mark’s case it is a work that already existed and then there is a revisiting that starts to open up the different facets of the original work itself, whereas in Pichet’s case you are talking about a complete new show, and what Pichet just talked about in the last five minutes really points to the scenario in this part of the world; for a new work it is not only about the dance, the music or whatever, there is also another chunk of work to be done, which is the technical creation in this case.

And in this situation, TPAM — just to give you a context of what we discussed the last time — also didn’t know that they had to play this role to come in to help in the technical creation part of things. In that sense this points to a scenario that, basically as an artist starts to evolve and think about making work that is challenging, not only for themselves but also for the company and especially on the producer’s side, essentially looks at the resources or at least areas by which we need to be very clear about what actually we need.

In this situation for Pichet the co-production somehow organically allowed for it to happen, even though it was not quite planned for in the beginning. You remember what Pichet said; the rules were not clear in terms of who was doing what, and therefore the artists were struggling with many parts. The producers or the co-producers were also struggling in terms of who is supposed to do what to help the work.

The point that I am making in doing this sort of quick summary is basically looking at the clarity of the steps in order to understand what kinds of resources we need to put in front of the artist. Like Pichet says, if there is no — and this is a situation common in Asia — clarity of funding then the default practice is that we will make do. We will try to find our own resources within what is known, which most times is not ideal for the work itself, which is usually the case; the work when it is put in front of an audience would not be ready.

What I find common in these different presentations by the artists and the previous one by Eko Supriyanto is that we expanded the process as a creation almost for the first time, and it is not just about time, it is really about the steps from the research to the investigation of a movement or a tax or a visit to a grave to whatever. We need to start to articulate this very, very clearly moving forward. If not, it is going to always go back to the default where it is okay, we will just try our best. In this situation I feel especially when we are thinking about how to concretize some of these systems in place, it is not okay to say that we will make do.

Pichet Klunchun: [English for the rest] If we look at the 20 years of Southeast Asian dance companies and dance productions, it is like one company or group happens for 10 years, at the maximum 15 years, and then disappears, and emerges again and disappears, and emerges again and disappears. That is because when you grow more, you will get stuck. Absolutely you will get stuck, stuck in the budget, stuck in the audience, stuck in the space, stuck in the festival or whatever. I don’t want my company to go in this circle again, because I am serious. I am not a traditional guru, and then when I get older, I move my body, I move my personality, I move myself; I want to become an artist, not a teacher. And if you want to become an artist and make it serious, you need to find a way how to grow and solve the problem.

The big problem in Southeast Asia is the career of dancers, and we don’t believe in the old body and old dancer on stage, because we want the fresh one. We want young dancers, fresher dancers on stage. This is one problem. The second problem is that the space for presenting the work is a festival. In Southeast Asia, for example, there is the Indonesian Dance Festival every two years — every two years, oh my god, every two years. And there is one in Singapore, and in the last 10 years there were very few opportunities.

I still do not know how to create a piece and present it. And money from the government? Forget it. Forget about that in Southeast Asia. They are not bad, they are good. The governments, they are good, they are not bad, okay, but they have their own point of view. We want to give them more ideas about what the contemporary art means, because they do not know what it means for them. They know what the classical performance means, and we want to give them more, what is the most important for today’s time about the contemporary performance. They are not a problem. The problem is the communication, the challenges with them. When you look at the story and work of a company in Southeast Asia, you will find the same problem.

In Southeast Asia, it is just the same problem. That is why I tried to solve the problem, and I think the most important thing is the dancer — you need to make the dancer stronger — and the second is how to make a production, and the third is that you need to look for people who can support your company and make the company go on with your own idea, your own concept or your own principle.

If you look at the history of dance in this world — if you look at Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham or Cloud Gate, they have their own knowledge. But in Southeast Asia, we still use the knowledge of the master, we are good students, but sometimes the good is bad for us because you are a good baby, and when you become a good baby you could not grow anymore. If you want to grow, if you want to create your own thing, get married with your dance and have sex with that and give birth to another baby. Your own baby please. That is why my company stopped 10 years ago to combine the traditional and the Western. Make a new thing, and if we fail, we fail. If we win, we go on. This is what I have been talking with my dancers about. If we fail after TPAM, find a new job (laugh). Yes, this is the way of art. I don’t know, because in this way it is not easy. It is a difficult way to go. You need to decide and make sure we find pleasure in this.

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa