Pichet Klunchun’s ensemble piece Chui Chai (“Transformation”) at the Lincoln Center Festival begins with a bit of khon, a form of dance-drama cultivated in the Thai court, with stories from the Thai Ramayana. A costume’s quantity of gold brocade, the height of a headdress’s spires and the level – floor or platform – on which a dancer reclines all signal a character’s status. But the movement tells you whether or not he is good.
Thodsakarn (Ravana in Sanskrit) – lustful kidnapper of Rama’s devoted wife Sita – is bad, for example. You can tell by the immodest splay of his limbs, the cock of his wrist to mimic a spearhead and the impatient stamp of his foot. When his niece Benyaki agrees to transform into Sita to trick Rama, the impulsive demon king sways in triumphant laughter. Benyaki’s imitation Sita, in contrast, is seamlessly fluid. Her wrists – the most eloquent part of the body in khon – draw figures in the air and her feet trace circles on the ground.
The scene where Benyaki’s flickering temper subsides into Sita’s dead calm can be mesmerising, but Klunchun – best known for his 2004 collaboration with comic French conceptualist Jerome Bel – is more interested in other transformations, namely that of Thai culture and the place of khon within it. In a pause in the action, we hear Bangkok pedestrians draw a blank when asked about Sita or assert that this one-time model Thai woman would be a sex worker today, servicing Rama and Thodsakarn alike. Soon dancers are updating Sita’s mask of modesty with the sign for around-the-clock arousability – tongue and butt out, eyes heavy-lidded. One mask is replaced by another.
But when Klunchun appears, in jeans with chest bare, we get somewhere. In the evening’s most luminous moment, he joins the masked Benyaki (Kornkarn Runsawang) for an intimate duet. They stand so close their foreheads almost touch. They wreathe their arms around each other in a contemporary “slow dance” where the ornate arrangement of their hands speaks an ancient language.
Klunchun doesn’t need to interview hoi polloi to discover the contemporary, he simply needs to dance, travelling along khon’s spectrum of steps – male to female, monkey and demon to semidivine woman – regal, soft and selfless.