Back to basics. Agree to differ.
A dialogue connecting body, mind and spirit
A super-stylised masked court dance and fluid hip-hop street culture – two parallel universes that can never meet. Or can they? Award-winning Khon artist Pichet Klunchun is the founder of Thailand’s first contemporary dance group. Laotian dancer-choreographer Olé Khamchanla is the initiator of a multimedia performance company in France. Together, they cross traditional and modernist forms to deconstruct established routines and return to the shared roots of movement and its meaning. In a dynamic interweaving of “old” and “new” customs, the cultural dialogue unfolds: probing, confronting, listening, and understanding. And turning macho confrontation into fraternal harmony. Here, two ground-breaking Asian performers of international renown reframe the art of dance to reconnect us with each other and ourselves, uniting diversity and diversifying unity to fully reconcile physical, mental and spiritual being.
Meet-the-artist session after the 2 November performance
Olé Khamchanla will perform ArtSnap :The Lighter Side of Street Hip Hop with The Autistic Genius.
Text: Pawit Mahasarinand
(President of IATC—Thailand Centre and Director of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. For 25 years, he taught theatre and film criticism at Chulalongkorn University where he was the Artistic Director of Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts))
At last year’s City Contemporary Dance Festival in Hong Kong, a few comments were voiced to the effect that, in comparison especially to their European counterparts, Asian contemporary dance artists have not taken as much artistic risk, and as a result many of their works are still highly influenced by Western classical and modern dances, notwithstanding their Asian subject matter.
The response to this comment tends to be that contemporary dance is in the development phase in this part of the world. Most audiences want to see something that they are already familiar with―that’s why Swan Lake by any European classical ballet company sells out tickets on many Asian soils. Knowing this, producers rarely risk bringing in experimental works in which audiences can exercise their imagination and even critical thinking skills. In any case, it is wiser for Asian choreographers to gradually develop the audience by holding on to their Western classical and modern dance backgrounds, instead of jumping too far ahead and risking losing their audiences. Moreover, while most contemporary Asian dance works seen outside Asia are based on traditions, the opposite can be said for those that are more regularly watched in Asia, in which (in many countries) cultural traditions are safeguarded as part of the national heritage and not seen as material for artistic experiments. Because of this, a great number of non-Asian dance audiences, scholars, critics and producers who might have forgotten to take into account our colonial history assume that most Asian choreographers are experimenting with their traditions, just like, for example, the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Lin Hwai-min does.
A pivotal example in contemporary dance for the cultural politics notion of traditional―if not exotic―Asia versus contemporary Europe is Pichet Klunchun and Myself, a dance dialogue between Thai dancer and choreographer Pichet Klunchun and his French counterpart Jérôme Bel. Introduced to each other by Singaporean dramaturg and festival director Tang Fu Kuen, in their English-speaking performance Klunchun introduced his French co-performer, and audiences around the world, to his dance background, that of classical Thai masked dance theatre Khon, while Bel used his most famous work The Show Must Go On to demonstrate how he conceptualised his contemporary dance work. The show premiered at the Bangkok Fringe Festival and made its international premiere only a few months later at Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2005, and has become one of the most frequently travelled and most successful intercultural collaborations in contemporary dance.
With this in mind, the new collaboration between Klunchun and Laos-born and French-raised Olé Khamchanla, Negotiation, is rather different. While Khamchanla’s company KHAM (a name which comes from his first solo work) is based in Saint Vallier-sur-Rhône, France, and his dance background is hip-hop, he has travelled to Southeast Asia―mainly his home country Laos, neighbouring Thailand, and the region’s economic gateway Singapore―and collaborated with dancers from these three countries for more than a decade now. Apart from learning traditional dances in Laos and Thailand, in 2010 he started the Fang Mae Khong International Dance Festival, the first of its kind in Laos, which has significantly contributed to the development of contemporary dance in the region. In other words, Khamchanla is no foreigner to either intercultural collaboration or Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, Klunchun’s works, both as an individual and for his company (which bears his first and family names), have solidly proven that he should no longer be referred to a Khon dancer, but a contemporary one. With his continual research in, and experimentation with, Khon as well as other genres of performing arts, his works show how this traditional art keeps evolving as it is applied to contemporary issues, not only in culture, but also in society and politics. For example, his latest company work Dancing with Death, which premiered at TPAM: Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama in 2016 and was later seen in Singapore, Australia and Taiwan, was derived from his research into how people from a district in a northeastern Thai province―and who have no proper training―have been creating intuitive dance performances for their annual Phi Ta Khon Festival. He also uses part of the knowledge he gained from this experience in Negotiation.
Nevertheless, the fact that he has been frequently criticised by purists and cultural watchdogs in his home country for experimenting with, or breaking the rules of, his tradition, is another piece of evidence of the fact that in many parts of Asia tradition and contemporaneity are two worlds apart. At the same time, he has frequently engaged in collaborations with international dance and theatre artists―recently the Japanese playwright and director Toshiki Okada, the visual artist Tomoko Soda, and the Taiwanese dancer Chen Wu-kang, among others.
That is to say: Both Khamchanla and Klunchun had been negotiating differences in cultures for many years before they started Negotiation rehearsals in August 2016 at Bangkok’s Chang Theatre, where Klunchun’s company was in residence. These rehearsals continued last year at National Choreography Centres (Centres Chorégraphiques Nationaux (CCN)) in La Rochelle, Grenoble, and Rillieux-la-Pape, as well as in Belfort this January, before the premiere in Strasbourg and performances in Paris at Le Tarmac―la scène internationale francophone, a long-time supporter of KHAM and this project’s producer―in addition to many French cities subsequently.
While Bel and Klunchun met for the first time less than a month before the premiere of their internationally acclaimed collaboration, Khamchanla and Klunchun met in 2007 in Bangkok where the French-Laotian artist watched his Thai counterpart’s solo work I Am a Demon, and Klunchun in turn watched his work, Kham, also a solo work. The pair did an improvisation a few days later, and kept the idea of a possible collaboration in their minds over the years.
Among the questions they have been asking each other, and their Negotiation audiences, are: How does one negotiate his/her origins and traditions to reach a new dance, a dance for today? From the traditional to the contemporary, which corporeal language transforms the original shape; which movement crosses the codes, and which writing reinvents a new history? How do two artists negotiate the stakes of a creation without abandoning too many of their own?
Intercultural collaboration in performing arts has recently become more popular, thanks in part to people’s increased mobility which has resulted in a growing interest in “the other(s)”. Many European and Asian cultural organisations, otherwise known as funding bodies, have increasingly prioritised intercultural collaboration, in which artists leave their comfort zones and take risks, artistically and culturally.
Klunchun notes, “Migration is a crucial international issue artists around the world are dealing with, and intercultural collaboration is a way. We have to keep in mind, though, that Europe’s interest in Asia is nothing new. For example, in dance, we can trace this Orientalism back a century ago to Nijinsky. In the contemporary context, artists are actually re-exploring it. I think we’ve realised that we all need new partners now. As borders are blurring, the pure no longer works and we need to learn new languages and to find new ways to communicate, and I’m not talking only about culture, but also [about] economics and politics.”
Khamchanla adds, “I don’t really care much about the intercultural aspect: I’m more interested in the people I work with. I like the dynamics of Khon, which is different from traditional Lao dance. If I could find such dynamics in Lao dance, I’d have probably chosen to work with a Lao dancer.”
As for his New Vision Arts Festival audience in Hong Kong, a city where neither performer is a native, Khamchanla says, “I don’t expect anything special from the Hong Kong audience because it’s not a show for this audience specifically―it’s for all. I’m just happy to share this experimental work with the audience, to let them feel the connections and find the way Pichet and I negotiate with our bodies and dance forms. There are no messages: You can just see the process and transformations.”
Klunchun adds, “Amidst our differences, we’ve been exploring how, and where, we can meet. For instance, we’ve asked each other, who can lead and follow at any particular moment and how we can share the same stage, equally. The process is more important than the result, whether or not we succeed in the end.”