Supported by Taiwan's culture ministry from the start, Taiwanese-Thai contemporary dance collaboration is now touring Southeast Asia and Europe
Finding a collaborator when making art is like going on a date, and not necessarily a blind one. You know something of each other’s background, think that it looks like a good match. As time goes by, your relationship develops, you know more about and learn from each other, adjusting yourself to make it work without losing your identity or standpoint. Of course, along the way you need some supporters who, to a certain extent, take risks with you, but at the same time you also know there are those who might be opposed. You do your best, hoping that it will last, no matter how long.
Contemporary Thai dancer and choreographer Pichet Klunchun has been meeting with his Taiwanese counterpart Chen Wu-Kang, founder and artistic director of Taiwan’s first all-male dance company Horse, for more than three years now. And unlike many artistic relationships that put forward a work or a product, from the start, their first collaboration “Behalf” was only seen by the dance-going public last May.
The Silpathorn Award artist recalls how it all began.
“About four years ago, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture (MoC) invited me to give a talk at Taipei National University of the Arts [TNUA] and at our meeting they proposed a long list of Taiwanese artists, from many disciplines, and suggested I collaborate with some, for which they, of course, pledged their full support. I remember performing in the same festival [“Men Dancing” at Novel Hall] as Chen more than 10 years ago [Pichet was performing his solo “I Am a Demon” while Chen was in a duet “TeteBech”].
“Our first meeting was at his studio, which is between a temple and a recycling shop. My first impression was that he’s a very happy person, despite the fights and struggles he’s had in his artistic career. In the first year, we took turns travelling to each other’s studios and presenting small showcases of the progress of our work, without any deadline for an actual production. And then when we decided to have one, we asked Tang Fu-Kuen [dramaturg for “Pichet Klunchun and Myself” and artistic director of the Taipei Arts Festival] to come on board.”
Pichet Klunchun in a collaborative project “Behalf” this weekend at Chang Theatre./Igaki Photo Studio
Pichet explains how they developed the collaboration, saying: “It started from his interest in tradition [hence the working title ‘Body Tradition’], while at the same time questioning his identity. He’s also fascinated by my strong traditional arts background. I already have it but the question is how can I find a way for its further development?
“What’s interesting, though, is that in the first year we talked more about fatherhood – I had a daughter and he was about to have his first child –, artists as fathers and also how we would, or could, pass on traditions to our children,” Pichet continues.
The recipient of John D Rockefeller III award has taken part in many intercultural collaborations throughout his illustrious career. This one, though, he says is different. “We’re more like friends than collaborators and so it’s much less stressful,” he grins.
Chen concurs. “Maybe it’s because we share more than a stage collaboration: we also include family in the process. It’s hard for me to tell the differences between living, working and experiencing: they are all mixed altogether, and so what happens in this working process seems natural.
“Collaborating with Pichet has opened a door for me into Southeast Asian dance and culture [the pair is now also working on another project ‘Ramayana’, which also includes Javanese dance master Sardono]. Realising that nothing stands and grows on its own and that we’re all related and affected by one another brought me to care about and also question how we become who we are, and why we dance the way we do. And because we collaborate beyond a performance project, the learning continues to expand,” he says.
Chen WuKang, left, and Pichet Klunchun stage their collaborative project “Behalf” this weekend at Chang Theatre./Igaki Photo Studio
“Our work is not about a specific aesthetic that we want to create: it’s more about our discovery during the process.”
Making its Southeast Asia debut at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Arts Festival last Friday and coming to Pichet’s home studio this weekend, thanks also to the Taiwanese culture ministry, “Behalf” is the title that Tang has given to the work.
The Singaporean dramaturg and producer explains: “The title comes from the portraits that each dancer has created in the work. Their sense of identity comes from ‘inherited’, ‘borrowed’ or ‘cultivated’ sources. In short, it’s an ‘identity formed by and from proxy’. This multiplicity of identities is therefore about always speaking and behaving on ‘behalf’ of something or someone else.
“‘Behalf’ also points to the structure of the work, which is strictly built on the principle of ‘half’. The space, time and action of this collaborative work is democratically split equally into halves. This procedure questions the model of old intercultural collaborations in which two or more parties tend to exchange and hybridise, as expected of a typical ‘collaboration’. ‘Behalf’ challenges that assumption and operation,” Tang explains.
Another partner-in-crime who came in during the last stage of development is veteran Japanese lighting designer Takayuki “Kinsei” Fujimoto. And if his name sounds familiar to Thai performing arts fans’ ears, that’s because his wizardry was seen here four years ago in another contemporary dance work “Alpha” at the Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts where he also conducted an LED lighting design workshop.
Tang explains: “His adaptive lighting practice and tools allow him to be extremely responsive and flexible to instigating new ways of making propositions to the work, and not merely lighting the stage. In short, he has an excellent reputation for conceptual lighting, and this adds immense value and potential to our process.”
Another risk they’re taking is with the music, as the collaborating musician(s) will always be local anywhere they’re performing – in Taipei, it’s a percussionist; in Bangkok, a classical guitarist.
For the world premiere of “Behalf” last May at the Cloud Gate Theatre, Taipei Times’ critic Diane Baker wrote that the work “shows what happens when artists want to shake things up and get their audiences thinking. Not everyone was happy with that, judging by the questions asked during the Q&A section. However, anyone who has followed either Chen or Pichet’s work, or that of Horse, should know that these are men who are interested in challenging conventions.”
Without revealing too many secrets, Baker wrote that the work comprises, “a prologue, a duet, a series of solos and the Q&A, just not in that order”, noting that “Behalf” is about “examining Chen and Pichet’s identities as dancers, their respective cultures and the sharing and transference of power.” She concluded that the work “is not for everyone, but for those who are willing to take a risk, it is worth it.”
Pichet notes that they chose not to reveal any images from the second half of the performance, which was so controversial in Taipei that the theatre needed to issue a statement afterwards.
Chen laughs, predicting: “In Bangkok, I think the controversy will start from the first half when Pichet starts his solo. I can’t wait to see how we click with the audience.”
Will we take a risk with them?
BEYOND TAIWAN AND THAILAND
- “Behalf” is at Chang Theatre in Soi Pracha-uthit 61, Thung Khru, Thonburi, on Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm.
- Tickets are Bt 600 at (086) 419 6064 and (095) 956 9166.
- Find out more by visiting Facebook.com/ChangTheatre.
- Thanks to the continued support from Taiwan’s MoC, the work will also be at Centre Pompidou in Paris on April 24 and 25, Festival DDD (Dias da Danca) in Porto, Portugal on April 27 and 28 and Kaaitheater in Brussels on May 4 and 5.