Relying on early 20th century paintings and photographs, Pichet Klunchun used Nang Yai for his research into Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography for "La danse siamoise". /Photo: Pichet Klunchun Dance Company
Relying on early 20th century paintings and photographs, Pichet Klunchun used Nang Yai for his research into Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography for "La danse siamoise". /Photo: Pichet Klunchun Dance Company

Orientalism rebutted

Art April 30, 2018 01:00

By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to The Nation

5,137 Viewed

Pichet Klunchun’s “Nijinsky Siam” remains a work of beauty and insight

IT’S EVIDENT that Pichet Klunchun Dance Company is stepping up its force as a company in 2018, and not as a group of dancers led by internationally acclaimed dancer-choreographer. Although it’s still far from the repertoire system larger dance companies are using, presenting recent works every few months at the company’s home Chang Theatre, while developing a few new works for later this year and next demonstrates that this is being done full-time. It doesn’t feel like a retrospective either, as their energy and passion underlines that they’ll never stop despite the many obstacles the company faces.

Photo/Sojirat Singholka

A co-production between Singapore Arts Festival, now known as Singapore International Festival of Arts, and Germany’s Theater der Welt, “Nijinsky Siam” premiered in 2010, and went on tour in many countries. The Thailand premiere was a year later at Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts, and proved so popular that with four performances failing to meet public demand, another one was added. It’s been seven years since Thai audiences watched it and it’s relevant now as it was then. 

Based on historical research by Sylvie Dancre and Philippe de Lustrac, “Nijinsky Siam” first gave the background to a Thai performing arts company tour of Europe in the early 1900s, then showed the audience photographs and paintings of “La danse Siamoise”, in Paris and Saint Petersburg in 1910, by Vaslav Nijinsky, who was inspired by the company’s classical Thai dance performance. Comparing these historical images on the screen with the three dancers’ performance on stage, it then showed that the Ukraine-born dancer took artistic and cultural liberty in combining the dance movements of the four character types of khon – male, female, ogre and monkey– and reinterpreting them into his own. 

Photo/Pichet Klunchun Dance Company

Nang Yai, large-scale shadow puppets, made from these images, were paraded onto the stage, accompanied by Christian Sinding’s music, although the lighting in this part was less than substantial for the audience to see their details. Anyhow, with these, “Nijinsky Siam” also showed how Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun put still images into motion and recreated “La danse Siamoise”, which was the highlight of this pivotal work.

Nijinsky’s choreography was proof that an outsider sees more beauty than an insider does – and also reflects how Europeans viewed Asia more than a century ago. 

Pichet’s choreography, or the reconstruction of Nijinsky’s, is proof that contemporary dance is also an interaction between the past and the present and between different cultures. 

Photo/Rachan Woramunee

“Nijinsky Siam” encouraged a lot of audience members to wonder why our culture and tourism ministries seem to focus most of their attention on promoting traditional, instead of contemporary, Thailand, as if they are promoting Orientalism. With tourism generating major revenue for the country, this land of smiles tends to give the visitors what they want and as a result, they feel that they know it all. In Bangkok, for example, any foreign visitor who never ventures outside the area not reachable by MRT or BTS would never experience how Thai people really live. Likewise, foreign performance goers who only rely on English-language brochures and sources of information would never reach Chang Theatre. 

Photo/Pichet Klunchun Dance Company

Thanks to the kind support of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), all audience members attending the six performances of this work over the past two weekends – like those for “Pichet Klunchun and Myself” last month – didn’t need to buy tickets. This does, however, raise a few questions. Why does this free-admission condition remain for government-supported performing arts? Does this condition mean that the support needs to be large enough to cover the whole cost of each production? Why, in order to be eligible for a double tax refund, do we need to directly donate to the culture ministry without knowing how the donation will be allocated, instead of directly to the artists we want to support? And lastly, will most of these audience members return when the next show, which is not supported, means having to pay for tickets? 

Quite right: that’s more than a few.


Developed at the da:ns festival’s artist-in-residency programme at the Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Pichet Klunchun Dance Company’s “Black and White” will be on June 22-24 at Chang Theatre, in Soi Pracha-uthit 59, Thung Khru, Thonburi. 

Tickets are Bt 500, available at or by calling 099 213 5639. To find out more, email