Capturing the many faces of khon
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Capturing the many faces of khon

A novel interpretation of Thailand's most renowned masked dance drama is set to grace theatres in France and Colombia next month


A white unadorned mask, worn back-to-front in unorthodox fashion, rises from the ground and levels an inscrutable gaze upon the audience. A consummate performance of Chui Chai, a piece of traditional dance choreography, commences with the dancer facing away from the audience and towards the back of the stage of Jitti Chompee's Miscellany Of Khon.

Inspired by the delicate flowers attached to the furious mask of the demon, Thosakan, Jitti highlights the surprising beauty of this paradoxical vision to lead audiences into a re-examination of the flower's duality as a symbol of Thosakan's love and his imminent death. Jitti's intention to turn the mask of tradition inside-out has wrought a radical departure from the conventions of khon, which was added to Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2018.

Jitti's work explores the history, art and beliefs intrinsic in traditional Thai performances. Viewing the body as a moving sculpture, he experiments with bodily absurdities and the incarnation of half-human and half-animal characters: his creatures explore the physiological limits of different bodies in an imaginary world, where man and mythology are intertwined.

Above right Khon Master Somsak Tadti, Thanphuying Sirikitiya Jensen and choreographer Jitti Chompee. PIYATAT HEMMATAT

Overseen by project adviser and curator Thanphuying Sirikitiya Jensen, Miscellany Of Khon is made possible through the joint support of the Ministry of Culture, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, the Fine Arts Department and the Queen Sawang Vadhana Foundation. Director Jitti's original approach breathes new life into the dramatic tradition, pioneering a new era of khon performance that highlights the enduring relevance and versatility of classical art forms to global audiences.

Over the course of three years, Jitti has researched the essence of khon with masters of the discipline, compiling subtleties of technique, literary references and aesthetic details which have been passed down from teacher to student and from generation to generation. This intimate knowledge is thus only known to practitioners and scholars of the art form.

Extensive personal conversations with traditional khon specialists and performers crystallised a short six-episode documentary film produced by the Fine Arts Department that captures the essential elements and untold stories of khon in stunning contemporary visuals.

Above Yarnawut Traisuwan rehearses for the army dance choreography. PIYATAT HEMMATAT

The latest episode of the Miscellany Of Khon documentary explores the concept of Baak which is an aspect of sound design in khon performance that serves as a form of communication between musicians and masked performers. "Baak" features principal dancers from the National Theatre such as Anucha Sumaman, Suwan Klinampon, Yarnawut Traisuwan and Watcharawan Tanaphat.

Moreover, a deep-dive of hidden insights into khon can be found within the pages of Miscellany Of Khon, a book produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture. While the knowledge and practice of khon has been sustained through oral tradition, this book provides an account of arcane aspects of the art form which are overlooked or undocumented, highlighting the refinement and brilliance of former generations of Thai artists that are at risk of diminishing with the passage of time. The book also features a photography collection of Jitti's khon-inspired creations.

Audiences and readers will undoubtedly be fascinated by the hidden gems of the tradition, which are brought to the surface through a contemporary lens. Jitti's research has also come to fruition in a contemporary performance series, School of Ganesh and Melancholy of Demon, and a traditional demonstration of khon titled The Miscellany Of Khon Music: Minimalism In Sound Design For Traditional Khon Performance that surveys different facets of khon, as well as a photography exhibition that distils the quintessence of khon for new audiences.

Below left A scene from the Miscellany Of Khon which explores the concept of Baak. PIYATAT HEMMATAT

"A lot of people have this idea that to make something contemporary, you have to change it completely, which I do not believe is necessary," Thanphuying Sirikitiya Jensen explains.

"When a story, such as the one underlying khon, is complex and surfeit of many layers of colour and music, the key is not to change it entirely but to deconstruct it, drawing attention to individual layers so that people can see bits and pieces of it. Then, when you put the pieces back together, the story becomes whole".

Within the niche of khon-derived contemporary dance, Jitti asserts that his endeavours have succeeded where other innovations have fallen short, due to his ability to extricate himself from existing Western theories, as he knows full well that many of them are already obsolete.

He believes it is more desirable to explore and derive principles and directions from a serious analysis of actual practices, as previous experiments in creating contemporary dance from khon and other genres of Thai traditional dance have not brought about a harmonious passage from the old to the new.

Left The Centre Intermondes La Rochelle. Photo courtesy of Centre Intermondes

His contention with many so-called innovations is that they turn out to be mere bodily exercises, lacking in the grace and dignity of traditional Thai dance. Thus, Jitti has returned to khon itself in order to glean from it deeper meanings that can pave the way for new choreography.

Thanphuying Sirikitiya Jensen notes that change is at the very heart of the Ramayana, the text upon which the Ramakien, a Thai re-telling, and thereby khon is based. In an article titled "Three Hundred Ramayanas", AK Ramanujan wrote that the Ramayana is a text that is meant to continuously change and evolve over time. The Ramayana is considered as a type of discourse which takes on different forms, depending on the person narrating it.

It is a story which is intended to be told and re-told over time. It has been said that Hanuman, the divine monkey, would cease to exist if he were to stop passing on the story from generation to generation with each of his re-tellings. The Ramayana is always changing, but what you will notice is that the backbone of the story always stays the same."

Amid the relentless pace of today's globalised and hyperconnected world, Jitti's Miscellany Of Khon project serves as a bridge between the East and West that encourages local and international audiences to look to the profound beauty and essence of Thailand's cultural heritage as a source of unexpected insight into contemporary issues and even the existential registers of life.

Jitti's work drew the interest of the Centre Intermondes La Rochelle, which has invited him to a 3-month residency in which he will teach and promote Miscellany Of Khon, Thai culture and his choreography in La Rochelle to the students of Josué Valin High School, a Fine Arts preparatory school, and to students of the Conservatory of Music and Dance of La Rochelle -- ABC Atlantique Ballet Comtemporain.

This residency is made possible with the support of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine Region Convention, The Institut Français, the Thaillywood Foundation and the Embassy of France in Thailand.


'The Miscellany Of Khon' world premiere

A performance of The Miscellany Of Khon Music: Minimalism In Sound Design For Traditional Khon Performance and the world premiere of the Miscellany Of Khon -- a six-part documentary series, will take place at Mille Plateaux CCN La Rochelle on Nov 4. An additional showing will take place at the Opera de Limoges / Centre Jean Moulin on Nov 7 in France. School of Ganesh and The Miscellany Of Khon will also be featured in the Bienal Internacional de Danza de Cali, held at the "La Licorera", the Center for Dance and Choreography of the Valle del Cauca, in Colombia, on Nov 10-12. Visitors to the gardens of the Centre Intermondes, the CCN Mille Plateaux de La Rochelle and the Conservatory of La Rochelle, will also discover a photography exhibition titled "Miscellany Of Khon".

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