Cover Thai Dancer Pichet Klunchun, one of Thailand's great Khon masters

The renowned Thai dancer and master of Khon tells Tatler how he’s transforming the spirit of Khon to a contemporary context

In the days of the internet and social media, it’s not so easy keeping a traditional art form going. Pichet Klunchun knows this first hand. The Thai dancer is one of the country’s greatest masters of Khon, who is also keeping the dance drama genre alive. Khon dates back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom and is one of Thailand’s crowning and scared artistic treasures that combines various elements including dance, drama, music, poetry and shadow play into an art form.

Traditionally performed in royal courts by men in masks, Khon is seen by many, particularly the younger generation, as a thing of the past. Kluchun is one of the few that’s still unwavering in keeping it alive, having learned the dance since he was 16 years old. He has since gained notoriety for his boundless dedication to the craft and has performed it numerous times both in his home country and overseas. Now he’s bringing it to Hong Kong through the Tai Kwun Spotlight.

Aiming to create an understanding of a resurgence from the young generation for Khon, Kluchun worked on No.60, which is a culmination of 20 years of work and research. For the performance at Tai Kwun called No.60: Back to Basics, he leads four Hong Kong dancers from different disciplines in training to transform the spirit of Khon to a contemporary context. Ahead of the performance from October 7–10, Tatler catches up with the maverick artist to learn more about Khon and his role in developing it for future generations.

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What’s special about Khon?

Khon is special because it is a form of performing art that we can do research about its past in many aspects such as from political point from Monarchy to democracy, religious belief, music, costume, painting, drawing, the relationship between neighbouring countries by Ramayana story. I am very interested in how Khon will adjust itself to the “digital world” in this present time.

How would you summarise your experience choreographing this dance for Tai Kwun Spotlight?

The work among myself as a choreographer, with dancers who are looking for their own identity and the 59 diagrams of Theppanom cannon.

What do you want to showcase through this dance?

I want to share that the traditional art form contains core knowledge that is tangible and can be put in the process of creating work with the scientific approach. 

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How was it like working with dancers in Hong Kong when you physically can’t be there?

It was a new experience that need a high level of trust and respect. I lost the sense of human [touch] in terms of acknowledgement of space, surrounding, size of the stage, lighting, smell, the atmosphere of the actual performing space because I am not there. These elements are so important in process of creating work. It is not a problem, but it is the lack of realisation. I need to recall my previous experience with the space from my last visit to Tai Kwan a few years ago to regain my acknowledgement about those elements [in order] to retain my humanness.

In what ways have you kept the legacy of Khon alive?

Khon has its own life but it exists in its own world and its own space. Khon was created for the past, not for the present. It is important to understand that it was is still living in the past.  I believe you will have the next question for me asking how do we keep them alive for the present and future? My answer is that if we will keep Khon alive for the present and future, it needs to be modified. However, if it is modified, Khon will be not Khon anymore but it will become No. 60.

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How have your dance techniques changed from when you first started learning Khon when you were 16 to today?

When I first started learning Khon, I danced like [how] my teacher danced.  [But] as time passed by, my dance became more like myself.

How different is it when you perform or choreograph performances in Thailand and overseas?

When I perform in Thailand, Thai audiences see me as the “destroyer of the culture” but when I performed abroad to foreign audiences, [they] see me as the “promoter and conservationist of the culture.”

You mainly perform overseas and now you’re coming to Hong Kong, how does it feel to work with an international team?

It is an exciting and new experience for me to work with a new team and I learn a lot every time.

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What is the state of Khon now in Thailand?

Khon is supported by the royal court and the government and it was acknowledged as an intangible heritage of Thailand by UNESCO.  Nowadays, in this current society with the new generation, Khon is not relevant to them and it is not important and not interesting in their views. There is some problem arising among the new generation such as the question about the curriculum that forces them to learn about Khon in their educational system. The new generation doesn’t see the necessity of learning about it.

For me, as a person who studied Khon and now, working in the contemporary field, I am trying to make a bridge between Khon and the new generation to create an understanding between the two parties. No. 60 is a part of my work to help the new generation in seeing that knowledge from Khon can be developed into something new.

What do you want Hong Kong audiences to get out of this performance?

I wish audiences will look at knowledge in the past in any type and use it in finding their identity.

What kind of an artist do you want to be remembered by?

I do not want people to remember me but I want people to remember my work because, in the future, I will die. My body won’t remain but my work will. 


No. 60: Back to Basic will be performed from October 7–10 at JC Cube, Tai Kwun. For more details, please visit taikwun.hk.

 

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