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Thai Khon: How the world of Thai dance opened up to one foreigner

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30-year-old Canadian studies classical Thai Khon dance for master's degree. Passion for Thai dance began as exchange student in Sukhothai. 


Behind the Thai mask

Canadian Benjamin Tardif has been studying the traditional Thai dance of Khon for years and plans to share what he has learned with other foreigners
Pichaya Svasti

Benjamin Tardif studies at the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute.

30-year-old Canadian Benjamin Tardif is studying at Bunditpatanasilpa Institute for a master's degree in the teaching of Thai performing arts. His passion for traditional Thai dance began when, as part of a cultural exchange programme in 2002, he studied at Sukhothai Witthayakhom school in Sukhothai.

As part of his studies in Thailand, Benjamin went to Sukhothai Performing Arts College to learn different Thai arts, ranging from playing the wooden xylophone (Ranad Ek) to Thai boxing (Muay Thai), but it was the beauty of the classical Thai Khon dance that struck a chord with him and then eventually he decided to pursue Khon seriously and become a Khon dancer himself.

Khon is often based on tales from the epic Ramakien. In it, there are phra (male protagonists), nang (female protagonists), yak (giants or evil antagonists) and ling (monkey soldier assistants to phra) characters. Tardiff was given the role of a monkey due to his small frame and cheeky personality.

"Many Asian countries, including Myanmar, India, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, have performances based on the Ramakien, but the costumes and dancing postures vary. Watching Ramakien in Cambodia, for example, you will see monkey characters look so natural, while Thailand's performances focus on beauty and fine, yet monkey-like, dancing postures," Tardif noted.

Benjamin Tardif in full khon costume.

When he was in Sukhothai, Tardif practised more than 100 major dancing postures over a six-month period.

After returning to Canada, Tardif later studied to be a social science and history teacher. Ten years later, in 2012, he returned to Thailand on vacation and visited some of his old classmates in Sukhothai. Upon seeing that two of his friends were still practising Khon, he decided to further his studies in Thailand.

Before he was allowed to enter the master's degree programme at Bunditpatanasilpa Institute, however, Tardif had to pass a written test on the history and traditions of the Thai performing arts, as well as pass an audition. After a couple of months coaching from his Khon instructor Somchai, he was ready for the audition. Tardif decided to perform the Chuichai Hanuman Songkhruang dance and the Na Part Tra Nimitr dance. The judges said that although his dances were not perfect, his strong will and passion were evident and so gave him the green light.

So far, Tardif has been studying at the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute for one-and-a-half years. He spends most of his leisure time taking Khon classes with the institute's undergraduate students on weekdays, free classes at Thammasat University's Khon Club on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and another class with National Artist Prasith Pinkaew at the Kukrit Institute on Sundays.

Sometimes Tardif also struggles with certain Thai words and has to ask the lecturers about the meanings. This eagerness to ask questions, however, enables him to fully understand the feelings and postures of each character.

When Tardif is not studying, he often performs Khon at Chalerm Krung Theatre and is usually given the roles of Nilanon and Ongkhot, who are among Phra Ram's monkey soldiers.

"To be a Khon dancer, I need to understand the Ramakien and the characters I play. I still don't know all of the 18 sibpaet mongkut [key monkey warriors], I just remember the main phraya characters like Hanuman, Sukreep, Nilanon, Chompoophan and Ongkhot," said Tardif.

His lecturer Viroj said that he is curious about what Tardif may do in the future, but is confident that he will do well.  "I reminded him that something like the plerng na part is highly respected by Thai artists and must not be modified. He understands this well, so I think some day he may be able to apply this knowledge to a teaching career of his own or start his own show," he said.

According to the lecturer, Tardif is not the first foreigner to study Khon. He remembers a group of students from the US and Swedish singer Jonas Anderson, who sings luk thung, studying khon before Tardif. What sets Tardif apart however, is that they didn't take their studies to the highest level like he did.

After graduation, Tardif plans to remain in Thailand and hopes to become a teaching assistant of Khon to foreigners, this is, of course, if he gets the opportunity to do so.

"It is a great honour," said Tardif, "It is unbelievable. I never imagined my life would come to the point where people accept me like they accept fellow Thais — without thinking that a farang cannot do it."

Khon instructor Viroj Yoosawat instructs Benjamin at the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute.

Benjamin being dressed as Hanuman, a monkey warrior in the Ramakien.

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antagonist: opponent; the character in a story who opposes the main character and creates a problem or situation that must be resolved in the plot -

assistant: a person who helps or supports somebody, usually in their job - ผู้ช่วย

audition: to give a short performance so that somebody can decide whether they are suitable to act in a play, sing in a concert, etc - ทดสอบการแสดง, ทดลองแสดง

based on: information or facts used to make calculation, judgement or decision - ตั้งอยู่บน,ยึดเป็นหลัก

career: a job or series of related jobs that you do, especially a profession that you spend a lot of your working life in - อาชีพ

character: a person in a book, play, film etc - ผู้สวมบทบาท, ตัวแสดง

cheeky: rude in an amusing or an annoying way - ทะลึ่ง,ไร้ยางอาย,หน้าด้าน

classical: an old and respected form of art, literature, science, etc. - ที่เป็นแบบดั้งเดิม

classmate: a person who is or was in the same class as you at school or college - เพื่อนร่วมชั้นเรียน

confident: certain; having trust in people, plans, or the future - มั่นใจ

costume: the clothes worn by people from a particular place or for a particular job - เครื่องแต่งกาย

cultural exchange program: when students from two countries go to each others' country to study and learn about the other country's culture -

curious: having a strong desire to know about something - อยากรู้อยากเห็น

due to: because of - เนื่องจาก

eagerness: wanting to do or get something very much or enthusiastic about something that will happen - กระตือรือร้น

enable: to make someone able to do something, or to make something possible - ทำให้เป็นไปได้

epic: a long poem that tells the story of ancient people and gods -

eventually: at the end of a period of time or at the end of a process - ในที่สุด

evident: clearly seen; obvious - เห็นได้ชัด

evil: very bad or cruel - ชั่วร้าย

feeling: an emotional condition or state that a person is in such as anger or happiness - ความรู้สึก, อารมณ์

female: being a woman or a girl - สตรี, ผู้หญิง, เพศหญิ

green light: permission to go ahead and do something that you are waiting to do -

honour: something you do that you are proud of; the respect that people have for someone who achieves something great, is very powerful, or behaves in a way that is morally right - เกียรติยศ, เกียรติ

imagine: to form a picture of something or someone in your mind - นึกคิด, จินตนาการ, นึกฝัน

judge: a person who helps make the decision about who wins a competition such as a talent show or beauty pageant -

key: most important - ที่สำคัญ

knowledge: all the facts that people know about a subject (example: medical knowledge) - ความรู้

lecturer: a teacher at a university or college - อาจารย์ผู้บรรยาย

major: very large or important - สำคัญมาก

male: being a man or a boy - ผู้ชาย

master's degree: a further university degree that you study for after a first degree - ระดับปริญญาโท

modified: changed slightly, especially in order to improve it or use it in different way - ถูกดัดแปลง

natural: normal; as you would expect - ตามธรรมชาติ, เหมือนจริง

opportunity: a chance to do something, or a situation in which it is easy for you to do something - โอกาส

passion: a strong enthusiasm or interest - ความชื่นชม หลงใหล 

perfect: having everything that is necessary; complete and without faults or weaknesses - สมบูรณ์แบบ

perform: to put on a show for people, e.g., singing, playing a sport, etc - แสดง

performance: the act of carrying out some type of entertainment or sport - การแสดง

performing arts: arts where a person "performs" such as acting, dance, music... -

period: a length of time in the life of a particular person or in the history of a particular country - ยุค, ช่วง, กาล

personality: the part of a person that makes them behave in a particular way in social situations, e.g., in friendly or unfriendly way, or in a confident or shy way - บุคลิกลักษณะ  ลักษณะเฉพาะตน

posture: position of the body, e.g., sitting, standing, walking, etc. - ท่าทาง เช่น ท่านั่ง ท่ายืน

practise: to do something regularly, often according to a custom, religion or set of rules, or as a habit - ทำตามหลักทางศาสนา

protagonist: the main character in a play, book or story -

pursue: to work at something or carry it out - ทำให้ลุล่วง

range from: to include a variety of different things in addition to those mentioned - ขยายออก, แบ่งประเภท

remind: to make someone think of something they have forgotten or might have forgotten - เตือนความจำ

respect: a feeling of admiration that you have for someone because of their personal qualities, their achievements, or their status, and that you show by treating them in a polite and kind way - ความเคารพ, ความนับถือ

role: an actor's part in a film or play - บทละคร

set apart: to make somebody/something different from or better than others - แยกจาก

small frame: small body -

strike a chord: to say or do something that makes people feel sympathy or enthusiasm -

struggle: to try hard to do something that you find very difficult - พยายาม, ประสบปัญหา, ต่อสู้กับปัญหา

tale: story - เรื่องเล่า

tradition: a very old custom, belief, or story - ประเพณี, ขนบธรรมเนียม

traditional: of a custom, a way of life or a way of doing things that has not changed for a long time - เป็นประเพณี, ตามธรรมเนียม, ตามที่ปฏิบัติกันมา

undergraduate: of a student who is studying for a first degree at a college or university - เกี่ยวกับนักศึกษาปริญญาตรี

vacation: holiday; a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home - ลาพักผ่อน, ลาพักร้อน

vary: to be different in different situations - ปรวนแปร, เปลี่ยนแปลง, แตกต่าง

warrior: a soldier or fighter, especially in the past - นักรบในสงคราม

will: a determination to do something, despite any difficulties or opposition - ความตั้งใจ

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