from the Royal Thai Ballet
They do this all the time, but I can't get over it—the Asian Art Museum has once again presented a first-rate dance concert, in conjunction (this time) with the opening of a major exhibition of the art of central Thailand.* Last Friday, the Asian presented thirteen dancers covered with jewels—Liberace at his peak was not more dazzling—from the Royal Thai Ballet dancing excerpts from their epic dance-drama based on the "Ramayana."
What other museum presents ballets? The Asian does it regularly. One of my first assignments as a critic nearly twenty years ago was to cover a fascinating, and beautiful lecture demonstration by the Kathak master Chitresh Das in the theater of the old Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park.
Friday night's performance by the Royal Thais took place in the Herbst Theater, next door to the Opera House and across United Nations Plaza from the new home of the Asian, by City Hall at the city center. The dancers were accompanied by a small gamelan and were introduced by Forrest McGill, the Asian's Chief Curator, who (as usual) told the story we were about to see. For even though it is a familiar story (like that of the Trojan War for the Greeks), it needs to be made new every time, and there are always new angles on it.
It was fascinating to wonder in anticipation just how closely Thai dancing would resemble the court dancing of the other Indochinese nations, and those of Indonesia. Here around San Francisco, where we have a resident gamelan, we see a fair amount of the dances of Bali and Java. And there is a great Cambodian artist who has settled here, Charya Burt, and established a fine school.
It is wonderful for an outsider to see how differently the same forms—the turned-out positions, the costumes, the beautifully soft feet with their curled toes, the many depths of plié, the bird-like use of the throat—register, depending on the religion which dominates the culture. Balinese dancers are so alert, the eyes are so aggressive, like bells ringing as they dart up, down, sideways, in service of a Hindu religion which is trying to mediate between the forces of becoming and of destruction. The same cat-like smiles, crowns, costumes are worn by Javanese court dancers, but the eyes are trained on the floor about a yard in front of the dancer, in service of an Islamic modesty. And the Cambodian dancers who're I think Buddhist are even more remote than that, encouraging a meditative state that's almost hypnotic.
It was an especially lucky accident for us that the Thais chose to show the khon, or masked drama, of which similar specimens have been shown by Javanese and Balinese troupes here, and that in particular they chose to show the same story that Chitresh Das used last year for his fantastic collaborative experiment, "East as Center" (reviewed "in these pages" May 29, 2003). So it was possible for many of us who'd seen that to compare them. Das created a sensation by using dancers of three different traditions (Kathak, Kathakali, and Balinese) to tell how the demon Ravana tricked Rama and abducted the queen Sita from their hermitage in the forest. So Sita went through her rape in the Balinese style, while Ravana attacked and carried her off in the manner of India.
It is a great story: how the demon Ravana plots against the hero-god Rama and hits him at his weakest point (for Rama is greatly in love with his wife, Sita, and if he can get Sita, Ravana will "have" Rama, he thinks). The demon disguises his uncle as a golden deer and sends him to charm Sita, who wants the deer for a pet and begs her husband to catch him for her, whereupon Ravana will disguise himself as a Brahman and come to the house to beg alms, and trick Sita into coming out of doors, whereupon he will grab her, which he does, and violently bears her away.
The plot has many twists, all of which provide wonderful excuses for a new style of dancing—including the entrance of some comic relief, the monkey-hero Hanuman, who seems to be the direct ancestor of Harpo Marx, and comes upon the disconsolate Rama and Lakshman in the forest and joins forces with them and cheers them up.
The story lends itself to episodic intensification. And indeed in all South Asian courts the dance drama goes on for hours, days even, with each twist of the story getting re-embroidered in the re-telling
It was no less fascinating to see the story told in the Thai style, which was in one sense less familiar to us but in another VERY familiar, or it influenced Martha Graham, and in some sense we've seen it before, both in Graham works and in Jerome Robbins' marvelous pastiche, "the Little House of Uncle Thomas." Friday night, the demon who was disguised as a golden deer, and so charmed Sita that she begged Rama to go capture him, did temps de fleches as she scampered about, luring him away from the house. She'd begin a phrase of little running steps with a little temps de fleches; it that reminded me of the bride's dance from "Appalachian Spring" (and also of Pee Wee Herman's signature gait).
The Thai style is relatively "natural," like the Indians', and by contrast with those of the Balinese and Javanese, Thai classical dancers' eyes are clearly trained but are used mostly "dramatically," as they were in silent movies—with the expressions that belong to the dramatic situation. It was almost uncanny how much Sita looked like a very young Zasu Pitts (or indeed the young Martha Graham)—huge eyes, a very red full mouth, and "sensitive" tilts of the head and shoulders that belong not to the stylized bird-like movements of Indonesia but rather to the manner of presentation of a good girl in an old movie—modest, attentive, inquiring, alert, the mirror of her changing emotions in response to emerging circumstances. I kept thinking, St Denis studied these postures and manners, and Gish had studied them, this is not a tradition that's exotic or alien to us, it's old Hollywood, it's ours. (Unless of course there's been back-formation, which is probably likely but not extensive.)
Thais have their own version of the usual South-Asian emploi. Demons are danced by large-boned, well-proportioned men (and women), heroes and gods are danced by fine-boned tall men, women by small delicate women, and monkeys by peasant-types.
The dancers are in plie most of the time, at different levels, and mostly in first position. A demon may advance through open fourth, taking a step every four or eight counts. Deliberation and declamation tends to take place in second position (often using a lunge that resembles the Warrior pose of Yoga)—going back and forth from one foot to the other, as if making up the mind and, when a decision's been made with perhaps the working leg at hip-height and bent at the knee, foot flexed. When it's important to show that we're talking business, demons and heroes (including the monkey Hanuman) will "put the foot down" in a distinctive, ritualized way. We saw it many times, and it was always a delight: Demon or god, he'll bend the standing knee quite profoundly, straighten most of the way, then descend a bit, push off, and hop flat-footed, landing with a bang.
It was fascinating to see that the monkey Hanuman did this too. After Rama had removed a curse which had halved Hanuman's strength; the first thing Hanuman did, in rejoicing to be reinvigorated, was to do this hop-stamp, and he made a big noise and enjoyed it. Monkeys, on the other hand, even if they're royal, do not curl their toes up; all the rest do this, especially Rama.
There was a bench center stage, and a tree off to one side, on other setting. Twice there were sections where a dancer sat on the bench and with "port de bras" did a kind of seated dance that was half mime, half dance. First when Sita was waiting for Rama's return, after she'd become anxious and sent her last companion to look for him, and finds herself confronted with a visitor (the demon Ravenna masquerading as a beggar, whom she offers hospitality and alms, only to discover too late that she's been tricked by the devil in disguise).
The second use of the bench was most revealing to me of the power of this form—after the abduction of Sita, when Rama finds her scarf left behind, he retires to this bench and weeps. It's completely stylized. I asked the distinguished Bay Area Kulintang choreographer Alleluia Panis (whom I saw in the lobby) about this section, and like me she was mesmerized by the Graham-esque rib-isolations the dancer was executing. But it didn't occur to her that Rama was crying, she was so fascinated by the contraction-technique and its associations for contemporary dancers. It was so quiet, so subtle, the spasms were so tiny they were almost invisible, and yet you could not help seeing them. Or rather, you could not help seeing the costume react. This is royalty, in fact, this is a god—Rama is, like Krishna, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, and of course, the gods have their own way of crying.
The performers were as follows:
Musicians: Boonchuey Saengarnant (head of the troupe), Lasit Isarangkura, Chaiyapheak Siti, Varasin Sungjuy, Somprasong Loakimpongsvat
Photos: Chad Thompson of ASIA the Journal of Culture and Commerce.