Letter from Bangkok

Back to Bangkok – A Letter about Puppets and People
Week of August 21, 2006

by George Jackson
copyright ©2006
by George Jackson

The movement of puppets and marionettes has always seemed something of a mystery despite the purely mechanical laws governing these artifacts’ workings. Humanity keeps attributing personality, willpower and even soul to what everyone concedes are merely mobile dolls. In the West, we’ve seen people imitate dolls in “Coppelia”, “Die Puppenfee”, “Petrouchka”, “La Boutique fantasque”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and other ballets. We’ve read Kleist’s classic essay and Hoffmann’s tales, and also heard and seen the last mentioned as danced opera.  In the Far East, entire traditions of puppet performances evolved — Japanese Bunraku and Javanese shadow cut-outs probably being the best known in the West. Last year there was a fertile meeting of East and West, and of old puppet manipulations and the latest video technology in Ping Chong’s Cathay tales for Kennedy Center’s China Festival. 

Standing in half light in an unfamiliar hallway far from home, I suddenly felt a touch on my shoulder and became aware of a small chalk-white face watching me from behind. I turned to see an inquisitive figure, one that demanded a response. “What are you doing here?” and “Who are you?” it seemed to be asking. Unsure whether it was alive or a doll, I nevertheless folded my hands and proffered them with a nod — my best approximation of Thailand’s way of giving a greeting and saying thanks to a welcome. The entity, not unfriendly yet somewhat forward, advanced to rub its cheek against mine and then retreated a step while urging me to continue our encounter. By then I had realized that this was a puppet and that the three young men accompanying it, like disciples at the heels of their master, were the puppeteers.

Customers approaching the box office of the Joe Louis Theater in Bangkok’s Suan-Lum Night Bazaar are often given such surprise greetings. After the performance of a “traditional Thai dance play”, the puppets mix with the audience to say goodbye and pose for photos. It is courteous behavior although a bit scary when one is approached unaware. The practice of direct contact between performer and customer also makes the puppets seem real, super real. I’ll always remember “my” puppet’s  character — shrewd, a bit fresh and twitching with life whereas his three flesh-and-blood handlers were merely acolyte figures.  They knew their place: behind the star they served selflessly.

The puppet handlers in Bunraku hover like spirits about their charges. Shrouded, they are not supposed to be seen clearly. The handlers of the Thai puppets, far from being hidden, are trained khon dancers. There are always 3 per puppet, male handlers for a male puppet and female handlers for a female puppet. As in the regular khon (masked) dance plays, we are supposed to admire their footwork with its supple stepping and small hops. Character and expression, however, are the prerogatives of the puppets, and the trios of unmasked puppeteers, good looking though they may be, must remain reticent. It occurred to me that the relation between handlers and puppet is also akin to that between horse and rider at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School.

The play on Friday evening, August 25 was “The Myth of Rahoo and the Lunar Eclipse”, a saga that was part creation fable, adventure story and catalog of human foibles. The puppet that had approached me in the hallway had a leading role. He wasn’t an immortal — neither one of the pure and noble sort nor a demon. He was the white monkey hero of the Ramayana. In terms of the West’s traditional types he would have been a bravura character dancer tending to the grotesque yet not a monster.

The audience this night was largely Thai with a few visitors apparent in the crowd. I attended with Bangkok friends who had never been before. It had been their idea to go, although they knew of my interests. More attention to traditional Thai dance seemed to be in the air in 2006 than on my several previous visits. I hope it isn’t just this year, in celebration of the King’s 60th year on the throne. The Bangkok Post ran a full-page story on Aug. 23 about Peeramon Chomdhavat whose Arporn-Ngam Dance Theatre has launched a drive to restore Thai classical dance to its former grandeur. Tickets to abbreviated but otherwise rather authentic khon performances (at Sala Chalermkrung, the Royal Theater) were being sold at the entrance to Bangkok’s prime tourist site, the Grand Palace. My visit being brief and unexpected, I opted not to go. Instead, I stopped in three times to see the dancing at the Erawan Shrine (see www.danceviewtimes for December 15, 2003).

What a disappointment!  The choreography hadn’t changed but both the quality and quantity of the dancing had diminished. Movement here had always been restricted in step variety and spatial dimensions yet it was rich, it had intensity. How carefully feet had been placed, heel and sole caressing the floor as the leg came to a rest as on a cushion. Arm positions had a more off-hand air than the foot work, they used to be light yet pristine. And the few inches of space available did not imprison the women as they moved in ensemble but allowed each to sculpt her torso with suitable individuality.

Now, there is dancing only when a worshiper pays for it: time and number of dancers dependent on the amount of the donation (the minimum being 2 dancers for 2 minutes).  The women are dressed more uniformly than before and rather than seeming aloof or lost in thought they look bored — a little like lap dancers during the last round.  

Photo: Somkid Tammarate.                   

Volume 4, No. 32
September 11, 2006

copyright ©2006 George Jackson



©2006 DanceView