Three leading khon dancers recount a moving story of friendship and betrayal in postures and gestures
Jitti Chompee’s “Muet” staged by the choreographer’s 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre earlier this month as part of the International Dance Festival 2012, proved that not all khon dancers affiliated with Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts are stuck in the ancient times of “Ramayana” period. Neither are they necessarily more government officials than performers, something of which they are often accused.
Based on an episode from “Ramakien,” the Thai version of the Indian epic, “Muet” recounted the story of Phra Ram’s monkey soldier Kesonthamala and his unlikely best friend Mungkornkan in Thotsakan’s demon army. When Phra Ram commands Kesonthamala to aid him in killing Mungkornkan, the loyal monkey soldier finds himself facing a dilemma: honouring his duty or his friendship. In the end, he chooses to throw himself at Phra Ram’s arrow and receive the fatal blow together with this friend.
Instead of retelling the narrative, Jitti chose to focus on the numb feeling of “speechlessness” (hence the French title “muet”) the characters experienced in such an unbearable situation. Mungkornkan, sensing the threat from his friend, could only bury his fear and disappointment in silence. He put a bamboo sword between his teeth, bit hard into it, and let out a choked whimper. Kesonthamala treated the same feeling differently, covering it up with a half-hearted laugh.
All the while, the unnamed third character repeatedly tried to utter cries of warning but failed. He appeared to represent the other characters’ inner conscience, powerless and in pain. His eyes were wild, his mouth open in breathless gasps. Heightening this tension were lines of single light bulbs along with the menacing ceiling fans of P Tendercool Gallery.
The darkly beautiful original score by German composer Dirk P. Haubrich, too, helped complete the atmosphere of struggle and suffering.
Anucha Sumanan as Mungkornkan was the star of the show. Also a lead performer in the prestigious, royally commissioned “Chong Thanon” khon performance in November, Anucha kept his poise and exquisite movement throughout. He also successfully ventured out of his comfort zone and gloriously captured grief in his facial expression without his usual khon mask.
Suwan Klinampon is another dancer with the Department of Fine Arts who demonstrated he could think and dance outside the box. His Kesonthamala was playful but sad in the eyes. Also deserving special mention is Jitti’s frequent collaborator Klittin Kiatmetha, who displayed tremendous technical improvement and looked better than ever in the role of the inner conscience.
Compared to the company’s previous productions, the khon postures and gestures merged with contemporary dance steps even more seamlessly this time, creating an intriguing angular but fluid dance vocabulary. The three dancers never left the stage, yet managed to keep the energy levels high until the end. However, parts of the performance, felt rather repetitive, the result of the intentional play on only one particular emotion.
“Muet” also didn’t fulfil what it had initially promised,
The director’s note on the show’s Facebook page stated: “it is the objective of this performance to examine all aspects of the lengthy tradition of khon and the story of the Ramakien […]” and “Ultimately, it is the wish of this production to see the improvement of the general contemporary audience's understanding of one of Thailand's most elaborate living traditions.”
The first seemed an overly ambitious statement and should probably not have been posted. As for the second, as an audience member, I would rather be left to absorb a performance and make sense of it on my own than be told what I am supposed to get from it.
What “Muet” achieved though, was to introduce elements of the classical dance form to a contemporary audience in a less rigid context and instil a sense of appreciation in them. The audience might not have understood khon any better after the performance, but they could definitely enjoy the beauty of the bodies as well as relate to the timeless, universal emotion present in the antiquated mythological tale.