Representing whom or what?
A Taiwanese-Thai contemporary dance collaboration questions cultural exchange
CHANG THEATRE in Thung Khru, Thonburi was filled up to capacity on the last weekend of March when “Behalf”, the new contemporary dance collaboration between Taiwan’s Chen Wu-Kang and our Pichet Klunchun, made its stop in Bangkok as part of the 2019 tour which started in Singapore a week earlier and followed on from the world premiere last May in Taipei.
Taiwanese expatriates as well as those from other countries were among the Thais in the audience, and their level of anticipation, as for any new work by such internationally acclaimed artists, was indeed high. Some 100 minutes later after the surprise-filled performance, no one was disappointed. And that wasn’t just because we’d just had yet another new experience in performing arts collaboration, but also because we had been inspired to think more deeply about cultural representation and exchange.
At the IATC Thailand Dance and Theatre Review held a month earlier, critics noted intercultural collaboration as an important trend for our performing arts. They pointed out financial and administrative support from such cultural agencies as Japan Foundation, Goethe Institut and Taiwan’s culture ministry through the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Thailand (TECOT) – and their clearly defined Southeast Asia cultural exchange strategy carried out by, respectively, Asia Centre’s Wa project, the International Co-production fund and Southbound policies, as major forces. This is despite the fact that their Thai counterpart, namely our culture ministry, which still favours traditional arts as cultural ambassadors, hasn’t yet shown any sign that it would want to match the investment.
Partly because of this, Thai artists, in the context of intercultural collaboration, have rarely taken lead, or even equal, roles. All men are, supposedly, created equal; all collaborators are not. Oftentimes, when it comes to decision making in their new creation, it’s the artists from the country who initiated the collaboration and funds the project who will have the final say, while the Thai counterparts give them the world-famous Siamese smile.
Truly a rare case, “Behalf” is anything but.
While Taiwan’s culture ministry is both the matchmaker, who introduced the two artists to each other in the first place, and the supporter, who’s been funding their research, production fees and now touring costs, there’s no pressure for either the production outcome or the deadline. It’s the two collaborators themselves who decide when and how they will put on a show. Reflecting its length and multi-faceted nature, Chen even calls this “an intercultural/dance dialogue and an intimate exchange of physical, emotional and philosophical experiences” with Pichet. Besides, the fact that they’re both listed as dancer and choreographer in the programme leaflet shows that they are, supposedly, creating this work together, before bringing on board Singaporean dramaturg Tang Fu-Kuen, Japanese lighting designer Takayuki “Kinsei” Fujimoto and Taiwanese set designer Liao Yin-Chiao.
In the performance, after a pulsating prologue performed in the dark by virtuosic musician and composer Sarut “Bank” Baworntirapak and his collaborator, Pichet and Chen entered the stage and took turns performing their solos. Each of these lasted three minutes and was marked, if not interrupted, by an alarm sound from the other’s mobile phone. While one was performing, the other would watch but never do more than that. It was as if their stage time had been equally shared and each would rather “be” in his own “half”. The audience, probably yearning for their duet, couldn’t help wondering whether this could be called a collaboration or questioning what performing together actually meant.
Given the two artists’ very different dance backgrounds – one in western classical ballet and modern dance, the other in Thai classical dance – and the project’s working title “Body Tradition,” one would have expected this new work to show either the relationship between tradition and contemporaneity or some kind of new dance vocabulary the two contemporary dance artists had come up with after working together for three years. Many who assumed that any Taiwanese contemporary dance ambassador would be something like Cloud Gate Dance Theatre had also wondered if Chen’s ballet background would take the back seat in this collaboration.
We came to realise that the two artists also love experimenting and are not easily satisfied with what they’ve already achieved.
What the audience saw on stage were two well-established dancers and choreographers who had, as evidenced by their movements, been through a long journey, filled with questions as well as doubts, in their professional and personal lives. And as they’re riding waves of
traditions and contemporaneity, their performance showed traits of so many cultures that the audience didn’t need to separate one from another.
In a good number of intercultural collaborations, it’s the collaborating artists who benefit the most, as they learn through the process of sharing and experimenting and the funding bodies who can always take some credit, if not pride. Occasionally, this leaves the audience wondering what exactly we would gain from it and whether the artists would have any opportunity to develop this special relationship further after the funding runs out. “Behalf” makes sure that the audience is also part of it, although we’re only in it for less than two hours not three years like these two artists.
The post-show Q&A of “Behalf” followed the curtain call so quickly that no members of the audience felt that they should go home or even visit the toilet and it became an integral part of the work. Unlike other Q&As in which the dramaturg or invited scholars might warm up the floor with a few questions, this was truly open for the audience to ask the two artists any questions or voice any comments, in Thai or English. In my attempt to keep the work’s surprises intact, I should only reveal here that as soon the artists saw there were no more questions from the audience – and as usual in Thailand that was quite soon – they wrapped up the Q&A, “Behalf” didn’t simply finish there and a lucky audience member had a chance to end it later.
In the end, “Behalf” might have disappointed some audience members who were hoping for a Pichet and Chen duet, or th the presumed outcome of this collaboration would have lasted longer than a Sunday afternoon, and one can’t really blame them for feeling this way. Many, if not all, would agree, though, that what we saw in this intercultural collaboration was simply two individual artists who hold passports from two different countries working together: they don’t really represent anything or anyone other than themselves.
CATCH THEM IN EUROPE SOON
With the ongoing support from Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, “Behalf” will be at Centre Pompidou in the French capital on April 24 and 25. It continues to Festival DDD (Dias da Danca) in Porto, Portugal on April 27 and 28 and Kaaitheater in the Belgian capital on May 4 and 5.