This year, the International Dance Festival programme features, for the first time in 12 years, nothing but young and promising contemporary companies from Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, India, and the UK. And the quality of the performances they've brought shows a marked improvement from previous years. This past weekend alone, there were at least two productions worth exploring.
Luca Silvestrini's Proteindance company from the UK presented us with LOL (Lots Of Love), a dance production that tackles human connection and disconnection in the internet age.
The performance begins with projected close-ups of the performers' faces, which we recognise instantly as interacting with a computer screen. Not surprisingly, LOL continues with vignettes of Facebook and dating website user looking for attention, friendship, love, and human connection.
LOL grew from improvisation and research done by Silvestrini and the dancers. Silvestrini's choreography intelligently translates the bottled-up energy and the latent emotions of the almost-immobile bodies of internet users into movements that are as aesthetically pleasing and dynamic as they are pedestrian and accessible.
The comedic success of LOL can be attributed mostly to the spoken words and sometimes the combination of that and Silvestrini's sharp choreography, which often portrays the disconnection between the body and the mouth, the body and the mind, the body and the heart. In turn, that comedy sometimes transforms into poignancy.
The dancers (Jon Beney, Patsy Browne Hope, Valentina Golfieri, Parsifal James Hurst, Sally Marie, Stuart Waters) form a versatile and athletic ensemble.
Silvestrini truly allows their individuality to shine and makes maximum use of their physical traits to produce the comic effects.
The last half hour of LOL becomes somewhat of a drag, however, with the ideas already stagnating and repeating themselves. It has become too easy to create artwork about social networking and online dating and make it about our failed attempt to connect to other human beings, our desperation, and our loneliness in the hyper-connected world.
LOL (Lots Of Love)
The characters in LOL barely move beyond exactly that _ socially awkward, desperate, lonely, and even creepy. And LOL seems to position itself above these types of relationships, interactions, and people. The only nuanced portrait is of a young man discovering the pleasure of love and struggling with his gender identity at the same time. Ultimately, LOL is just a cursory exploration of love, identity and relationships in the internet age that seems unwilling to expand its definition of love and find out why we reach out to and hide from ourselves and one another the way we do today.
This year, 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre has probably been the most prolific dance company. Muet, directed and choreographed by Jitti Chompee, takes an episode from the Ramayana about Kasorntamala, a monkey soldier in Rama's army, and his best friend, Mungkornkorn, demon Totsakan's nephew.
Kasorntamala's loyalty is tested when he must find Mungkornkorn in the sky and aid Rama in killing him. When Rama shoots his arrow and kills Mungkornkorn, Kasorntamala commits suicide and dies with his friend. This moving episode of the Ramayana, originally performed as khon, is depicted in Muet through a fusion of the classical and contemporary dances.
Jitti's effort to break from his ballet roots has been apparent since his first creation Remember What Have You Done In 24 Hours? before he formed 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre. In his earlier productions, Jitti's choreography remained rigidly balletic; he merely put ballet in the same space as other performing arts _ from hip-hop and opera to khon and glass harp. Slowly over the years, his ballet origins and other forms of dance have more and more melted into each other. But Jitti's predilection for putting different art forms on the same stage, which is sometimes charming, but often ill-conceived and underdeveloped, has persisted and inevitably become his trademark.
Khon seems to figure most prominently in Jitti's recent productions. Interestingly, he's not a khon dancer or choreographer, but rather a choreographer who inserts it into his work. In A Love Song, his use of the art form felt decorative and reeked of the kind of self-exoticism so common in the local dance scene today, small as it may be. On Muet's Facebook page, a statement reads: "Khon mask dance is a significant part of the Thai culture. Because it is representative of the Thai traditional theatre, as well as Thai culture in general even today, it is the objective of this performance to examine all aspects of the lengthy tradition of khon and the story of the Ramakien upon which the dance form is based.
"Ultimately, it is the wish of this production to see the improvement of the general contemporary audience's understanding of one of Thailand's most elaborate living traditions."
Isn't ballet, hip-hop, tango, flamenco, contemporary dance and how they entered into Thai culture, and how they are taught, danced, performed, supported and proliferated, as much part of Thai dance history as khon?
The way artists like Jitti and Pichet Klunchun try to appoint khon as every Thai person's heritage merely relocates khon from one altar to another.
For the production, Jitti worked with the exquisite Anucha Sumaman (his frequent collaborator) and Suwan Klinampon, both khon dancers, and Klittin Kiatmetha, who began in ballroom. It was refreshing to see Anucha abandon his usual fluidity and shift toward physical embodiment of pain and discomfort. It will be interesting to see how this collaboration will develop and what kind of vocabulary they will produce together in the future.
The selected episode of the Ramayana tells a beautiful tale of friendship, but Jitti muddled the story and stripped it of any real emotion by creating a dance cluttered with supposedly significant objects _ a fur blanket, a giant pile of yellow artificial flowers, a fan, animal masks, a wooden stick.
They are all meant to symbolise something or other, but Jitti seems to have been more hell-bent on making his production as cryptic as possible. Each action and dance sequence felt disconnected from one another. It didn't help that the dance lacks stillness, moving along like an antsy child.
And just in case you can't for the life of you understand why the show is called Muet ("mute"), then the dancers will intermittently remind you by opening their mouths wide and letting out a choked cry.
I seriously don't see how any of this is helping the general audience understand khon better, except to make them run to see the real khon version so they can comprehend this demon-monkey business.
Muet continues its run at p.tendercool's PT Gallery on Charoen Krung Soi 30 from tomorrow until Sunday, at 8pm, and at 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai on Monday and Tuesday, at 7pm. Tickets are 800 baht. Call 081-814-3304. International Dance Festival continues in Bangkok and Chiang Mai until Sunday. Visit www.friends-of-the-arts.info.
About the author
- Writer: Amitha Amranand