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The DanceView Times, international edition

Letter from Bangkok
December 15, 2003

by George Jackson
copyright © 2003 by George Jackson

Dancing is ubiquitous in Bangkok, taking place on land and aboard river boats. Gaining access to a particular performance, however, can be difficult for visitors. An article in one of the city's English language newspapers announced free seats for a Tibetan folk troupe, Xigase, at the National Stadium's Nimibutr Hall. Finding the location wasn't a problem since a terminal stop on one of the city's two skytrain lines is called National Stadium and every map of Bangkok shows it prominently. Entry into the hall, though, was a hurdle. Despite this being a free performance, tickets were required and the paper hadn't mentioned that. All tickets had already been handed out well before the day of the first performance, December 5. With two other ticketless Americans, I was being turned away brusquely by the ushers when some people with whom we'd been standing in line took pity on us and 3 tickets appeared as if by magic or, rather, by civility since the Thais are among the world's most hospitable people.

Curtain time was supposed to be 7 PM. As we took our seats around quarter to 7, a travelogue on Tibet was being shown on large screens, one on either side of the stage. The camera work was handsome and kept us entertained until about 7:20 when live events got underway with -- speeches. This was, it turned out, the opening night of a "gift" engagement by Tibet to Thailand on the occasion of the King of Thailand's birthday. The speeches went on and on, Thai or Tibetan texts being translated into each other. Even the one speech in English was incomprehensible due to accent and acoustics. The actual performance began at about 8 PM and the first number proved to be worth waiting for -- musicians in traditional Tibetan garb playing horns and drums and gongs that sounded like the earth shattering to release a howling wind of spirit voices.

Much of what followed had a kernel of the authentic but it had been tampered with. The singing and dancing seemed homogenized, prettyfied and pumped up in the Soviet folk troupe manner or in the schmaltzy style of Hollywood's Mario Lanza musicals. Emphatic, though, and undoubtedly intentional was the contrast between this presentation and the monastic ones practiced by Tibetan exiles: much of Xigase's performance showed gender equality, the cast including women as well as men in key roles. One acrobatic pas de deux, with lifts akin to those in Spartacus, graphically illustrated combative swordplay and copulation. The couple performing the pas de deux appeared to have both martial arts and ballet training.

Bangkok is a hub of dance activity in the Far East, so Tibetans were not the only visitors this season. A fringe festival in late November, early December featured the Vietnam Opera Ballet, Cambodian dancers as well as classical and avant garde Thai troupes. Scheduled for a world premier on December 13 was Katya and the Prince of Siam, "a romantic ballet in 2 acts" with the Kremlin Ballet Theatre and the President's Orchestra of the Russian Federation. It is based on the book of the same name by Eileen Hunter and M.R. Narissa Chakrabongse that recounts the true story of a 19th Century prince from what was then known as Siam, who studied at the court of Russia's czar and fell in love with a young Russian woman. Overcomimg much opposition, they married, moved to Siam, and lived unhappily thereafter. Eventually, Katya went back to snowy Russia and pined away. Andrey Petrov headed the production team which included composer Pavel Ovsyannikov and conductor Robert Luther. Presumably, Petrov also was the principal choreographer. Natalia Balakhnicheva and Sergei Smirnov were to dance the title roles at all performances through December 16, and the supporting cast was vast. Later, on 14 January 2004, there will be a one time only performance of Marcia Haydee and Ismael Ivo's Shakespeare-based The Tempest. The cast is to consist of 30 Thai dancers. The composer is Sinnapa Sarsas and the designer Chin Berrya Apikul. If you are wondering what you are missing, don't despair: there is no guarantee that ABT can resist grabbing up the two ballets sight unseen.

Classical dancing in the Thai variant of the Indochina tradition is maintained by an official academy in Bangkok and by performing arts departments at select universities throughout Thailand. Getting to see their work isn't easy because these school performances are not widely publicized. In six or seven visits to Thailand, I've been to just two. One was a dance drama in which the exotic divertissements to entertain royalty included a Western ballet pas de deux. I'd stumbled across this performance by accident, walking past the usually closed Royal Theater in Bangkok, seeing it open and people entering and deciding to follow their lead. No one asked me for a ticket. The other occasion was at the hospitality session of a scientific meeting at Ching Mai University in the north of Thailand, at which the performing arts students entertained the visitors. Very accessible, however, is the classical Thai dancing and singing at Erawan Shrine, in the heart of central Bangkok at the busy intersection of Ratchadrami Road with the street called Rama 1 Road to the west and Phloen Chit Road to the east. Overhead, the two skytrain lines which adjoin Siamese twin-like for a short stretch, split apart. Inside the fence that separates the religious site from the sidewalks and pavements, one is only minimally removed from Bangkok's crush of bodies and vehicular pollution, yet there is the feeling of a safe haven. Eight dancers in two equal rows, one infront of the other, and a small group of percussion players, three but sometimes four, are about all that will fit under the roof of the L-shaped pavilion that occupies the corner of the enclosure opposite the entrance gate. Overall, what the dancers do is sway gently and strike poses. What they do in detail involves the suppleness of the entire body, especially the arms and hands that flex, wind and stretch so finely. The performers face a statue that has been placed at the center of the shrine, under the open sky. It is an image of Shiva with four faces and eight arms, seated on a throne stool with one leg drawn up onto the cushion that rests atop the stool and the other leg bent over the edge and extended to the base of the stool. Surrounding the figure are offerings of cut flowers, smoking sticks of incense and lighted candles. The statue is already an act of choreography, so specifically are its many arms positioned.

The costuming and grooming of the dancers is elaborate, except that the lower legs and feet are kept bare in order to give the them high visibility. Footwork consists of cushioned stepping with the foot's underside feeling the floor sensually and then providing a stable base for balancing the body. All the dancers are female and wear their hair swept back into a bun high off the neck. The eyes are strongly outlined. Atop the head is a glittering pagoda crown. The torso is dressed in a tight bodice that tends to be long and may end in fore and aft aprons. Loose britches are worn and some women also have hip sashes. Everything shines or shimmers due to applied sequins, semiprecious stones, polished metal, silk and artful stitching. As they sway, the dancers may plie softly, rotating or winding their arms, keeping palms and fingers flexed. Sometimes they strike "swastika" poses. There is room enough for only one or two steps forward or backward, but no space for movement to the side. When a worshippers makes a donation to the shrine, the dancers join the donor in kneeling and praying. Sometimes they also sing, at other times they just dance.

These ceremonies at the Erawan Shrine can be seen daily, all day long and into the evening. There are a few benches along the sides of the fence for those who want to watch at length. The classical Thai dancing at restaurants, hotels, clubs and other tourist spots is more varied, more virtuoso but it is also somewhat cold. The Erawan dancers' repetitiveness is as warm as a mother's who is rocking her child's cradle.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 12
December 15, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by
George Jackson



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last updated on December 15, 2003