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Performance Art Review

Intricate dance of words, ideas

March 02, 2009|Sara Wolf

Two men walk onto a bare stage, take seats facing each other and commence what appears to be a formal interview. "What is your name?" the one in jeans, baggy shirt and leather work boots asks. "Where do you live? Why do you dance?"

So began Jerome Bel's unassuming "Pichet Klunchun and Myself" Friday night at REDCAT, a performance of words and ideas that paired the Paris-based conceptualist with the titular Klunchun, a performer-choreographer trained in the classical Thai masked dance drama khon.

The ensuing dialogue between the men was frequently amusing. Bel, bespectacled and slumped over his laptop, embodied the clueless Westerner, fascinated by the intricacies of Klunchun's narrative form, which, as the Bangkok artist informs Bel, transitioned from a beloved art to a tourist attraction when Thailand became a democracy.

The conversation digressed, its tone casual, and, at nearly two hours, its pace decidedly unhurried. The barefoot Klunchun eagerly jumped up to demonstrate such subtle differences as arm height or leg stance, distinctions, he admitted, that are lost on Thailand's general population now that khon is primarily performed for foreigners.

The spontaneity of questions that arose from curiosity or confusion, however, belied a highly refined work initially commissioned for the 2004 Bangkok Fringe Festival. Since then, the modest "duet" has been widely performed throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. If this speaks to the work's popularity (as well as its low-tech portability), the European Cultural Foundation award for cultural diversity Bel received last year reveals its currency in these globally conscious times.

An audience might easily find the heady mix of "Pichet Klunchun and Myself" relentlessly stultifying, given its almost complete lack of dancing. But Bel intentionally forgoes movement in favor of what might be called a phenomenology of presence, which he proposes is crucial to the theatrical experience.

As he demonstrated in an especially poignant scene accompanied by lip-syncing Roberta Flack's 1973 "Killing Me Softly With His Song," his goal is not to represent death but to provide the time and space to contemplate what it might mean.

It was evident that Tang Fu Kuen, the savvy festival curator who introduced Bel and Klunchun to each other, sensed the similarities between the artists' work more than the disparities, for as Klunchun had shown, the most potent moments in khon were also the subtlest, those that drew the audience in close.

For this reviewer, the beauty of "Pichet Klunchun and Myself" was illuminated in such moments, when the laughter fell away and the audience grew quiet, rapt with attention to a flick of Klunchun's finger or Bel's silent body, each speaking volumes about the power of dance.

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