Pichet Klunchun reveals the remarkable story behind his staging of 'Phya Chattan'
HAVING ROAMED through Japan, Denmark and Belgium more than a decade ago, Phya Chattan the Elephant King is finally coming home to Thailand this weekend.
The Pichet Klunchun Dance Company, which has been tracing the mythical creature’s evolution all these years, is presenting “The Sacrifice of Phya Chattan” at Bangkok’s new Chang Theatre today through Sunday.
Internationally renowned dancer-choreographer Pichet is in this case offering a solo performance, in the culmination of his quest to give society and its artists “spiritual assurance”.
The dance troupe first staged “The Bathing Ceremony of Phya Chattan” in 2004, followed by this episode, “The Sacrifice”, in 2005.
Pichet says he spent a year and a half in meditation contemplating this character’s noble sacrifice. The result is an intense performance that requires viewers to use their imaginations.
The extra effort is rewarded with a spiritually uplifting story accented by the dancer’s measured movements and a calming soundtrack of rainfall and jungle echoes.
Phya Chattan, mythical king of the elephants and an incarnation of the Buddha before he assumed human form, has two wives and a problem with lust and jealousy. The jealous wife prays to be reincarnated as a human queen and, starving herself to death, is reborn as she wished.
Recalling the heartbreak of her previous life, she sends a hunter to kill Phya Chattan and bring her his tusks. The hunter fells Phya Chattan with a poison dart and the king, stricken but not dead, chooses to yield his tusks, along with his life, to end the cycle of vengeance.
“I was in my 30s 14 years ago when we did the original show, and it was quite basic,” Pichet says. “But I’ve grown spiritually since then and my performance is richer, more crafted.”
He wears a khon mask, a white elephant’s head, in a show full of meaningful symbols. He begins in a cross-legged meditation pose as the lights go on and off to suggest the passing of days.
Gradually he begins dancing in slow motion, mimicking a battle with a monstrous snake, and then returns to a peaceful demeanour amid flowing movements that suggest a new journey beginning.
Pichet removes the mask, repeatedly turns it with eyes closed, face to face with his former self, and finally puts it down, opens his eyes, and walks towards a remarkable tree. He dances in blissful joy until, with alarm, he notices the tree’s flowers falling. Again there is a passing of days, and he lies down, ceding life once more.
“In studying Buddhist teachings, I realised that Phya Chattan’s real problem is about lust and defilement. The snake represents this. Then, as Phya Chattan perseveres and the years fly by, he becomes aware that all he has earned is mere outward refinement. Once he passes through this next phase of the dharma, though, he finds delight.
“In Buddhism, meditation practitioners can get stuck in that serene trance state. Phya Chattan is enjoying the bliss too – until he sees the flowers falling and recognises that nothing is eternal. He then considers the Buddha’s teachings, until he is finally enlightened.”
Pichet laughs as he recalls being ordained when he was young and not understanding any of this. He was taught only how to pray at funerals – the way monks earn their living.
He’s well known for his iconoclasm, having long challenged purists by revising ancient forms. New approaches sustain the arts and the full-time artists who struggle to create, he says. He thanks his 240 sponsors for believing in him – the people who paid Bt1,000 each for advance to see a preview presentation last month and receive an “ownership” share in this production.
“I’d like to show everyone that contemporary performing arts can create a sustainable community,” he says, likening his financing strategy to the tradition of mae yok – the mainly female theatre fans whose patronage ensured them front-row seats.
“Those first 240 seats were sold within four days of our announcing the scheme! Those people got to watch three performances and are registered as co-producers.
“This weekend and in next year’s presentation, if we have a full house all three days, they’ll split a 40-per-cent share of the profits. Then, by 2019, the production will belong to the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company.
“This is what I mean by the ‘spiritual assurance of humanity’,” he says, “a social phenomenon for non-artists who get involved in the entertainment business.”
Pichet spent more than two years building the Chang Theatre.
“It’s a place the public can be especially fond of – the trees and chairs were all donated, for example.”
The theatre will welcome any kind of contemporary performance, in what Pichet terms the New Tradition. “By that I mean a performance that relates to you and modern society. The next show here will be a transsexual likay. With new experiences, whether they’re good or bad, eventually it’s all good.”
Pichet’s “best advice” for young artists is to continue practising and learning and keep their “promise” to the audience – which is to never give up.
“An artist is like a master of the occult. When people have faith in a particular monk they produce an amulet with his likeness, but if he leaves the monkhood, the amulet’s value disappears. Likewise, if a painter succeeds and then suddenly gives up, his paintings become meaningless.”
Move Fast For A Seat
- Only 80 seats are available for each performance of “The Sacrifice of Phya Chattan” today through Sunday, daily at 7.30pm.
- It’s a total of 240 seats, so reservations are essential by depositing Bt1,000 in Pichet Klunchun’s savings account 258-224313-4 at Siam Commercial Bank. Post a photo of the payment record with your full name on the “pklifework” Facebook page
- The Chang Theatre is on Soi Pracha Uthit 61 off Rama II Road.
- Find out more on the “ChangTheatre” Facebook page or (099) 213 5639.