23 May 2024

Most Thais will recognize the name Pichet Klunchun but few will have seen this master of Khon (Thai classical dance) perform on stage and even fewer will understand the oneness he has with this art he has been practicing for most of his life. In short, he embodies the dance and the dance embodies him.

This oneness become clearer in the exhibition ‘No. 60 Exhibition/Demonstration’  showing at Chulalongkorn University Museum until August 25, which features his hand drawings of 59 poses of the Thai “Theppanom” movement. Most of the drawings are accompanied by brief explanations. The viewer will draw a subjective conclusion from reading these texts, which are so compelling that one has to simply stop, read and feel the power.

This writer is not a hard-core fan of Pichet. Indeed, she only watched him perform on one occasion but the impression from that one visit was so powerful that it has left a lasting memory. Years ago, he was at a theatre in Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Arts. The writer was high up in one of the back rows. He was way down on the stage. Somehow, his immense energy surged up to that back row, leaving the writer in awe and curious as to who Pichet was and why his energy was so strong that it could be transmitted through the vast theater.

Over the years, Pichet has been busy with his dance and his dance company. He was always on the road, overseas, performing in Bangkok from time to time, though this writer never had a chance to attend. Yet, his energy when he appeared on TV, giving updates of his performances, his companies, his life and world views, told us what he was doing and who he was.

A few weeks ago, he appeared on Thai PBS again, telling viewers that there was an exhibition called No. 60, which represented the last and final dance pose that he had spent decades trying to figure out. Somehow, just seeing Pichet yielded that familiar feeling of awe and excitement – curiosity too as to what exactly he had discovered.

So, this article is being written by someone who only saw him dance once but who has been sufficiently interested to follow him from afar because of who he is.

Before going on to explain why this No. 60 exhibition gives off such a powerful impression of the Thai classical dance of Khon, for which Pichet is renowned as a dancer, choreographer and master, and from which he has become inseparable, it’s better to read first the exhibition’s raison d’être found at the entrance.

It states that “No. 60 is an illustrated text that sums up two decades of Pichet Klunchen’s research on Thailand’s classical dance where he examined the fundamental set of 59 interconnected poses and movements in classical dance known as ‘Mae Bot Yai’ in Thai or ‘Theppanom’, the name for the first pose.  His examination led him to discover six key ‘elements’, which structure the whole set of movements in this fundamental repertoire.” No. 60, it states, helps the young generation see and understand the whole system of movement central to classical Thai dance without relying on mysticism, myth or ideology. It ends by saying that “No. 60 frees classical Thai dance of rigid classicism while stressing its rich sensibility and vitality.”

This article is not interested in identifying the six “key” elements that Pichet said he had discovered. Nor does the writer pretend to have the expertise to do so. What’s far more interesting from the visit is the impression gained that Pichet has graciously embodied the Thai classical dance and successfully deciphered its long-hidden messages that actually the dance and the dancer are one!

His explanations are eye-opening and make the heart beat faster. Here are some examples:

To accompany his first illustration called “Theppanom”, he writes that the importance of Theppanom is to enable dancers to connect experientially with these three points of energy in the body. They are the triangle from the lower belly (point 1) to the earth, and the triangle from the top of the head (forehead/third eye (point 2) and heart/chest (point 3)) to both knees.

He adds that these are the “soul beauty of the movement.” Without connecting with this very soul through embodiment, the dancer, regardless of how rigorously he/she dances, won’t be awakened to any physical movement and pose. The reason why Pichet’s explanation is so powerful is because it tells the viewer that the dance is not merely a re-creation of the right poses or an immaculate turn or beautifully-placed hands and so on. Rather, both inner and outer phenomena of a dancer must collaborate simultaneously to create a dance from within. Perhaps that’s why we often fall into the timeless magic at the very moment a performer truly reaches inwards and expresses his/her soul.

Illustration No. 20 is also mesmerizing. Under the illustration named the “Chariot Driver”, he writes that he will underline the importance of what the Thai classical dance normally overlooks, which is the space between these four shapes in this illustration. Pichet writes: “We have to pay attention to what is visible and invisible simultaneously because every time we dance, we create a pose that will lead to another [invisible] pose at the same time.”

Again, this statement wakes the viewer from his or her reverie. He can see the “invisible”, which in this case is the space. He understands that there is space and this space is also part of the communication between us, human beings. Like a bamboo with a strong trunk that can withstand the rain and the wind, the invisible space within the bamboo allows the tree to sway flexibly in a fierce storm without shattering. The dance, his dance to be precise, is not just what we see, but what we don’t see – the space around it, over it, beneath it and inside it. That’s why his movement is so powerful.

Two more illustrations further underline the immensity of emotion about what he has discovered and who he is now: Illustration No. 25 entitled the “Dancing Swan” is accompanied by a one-line text that says, “the swan is an outcome of the pose and not us (i.e. the dancer) thinking that I am the swan.” Again, the “I” as an outsider (i.e. “not us thinking that I am the swan”) is now incorporated into and seamlessly becomes one with the pose. Reading his text could give any of us goosebumps, simply because in that moment, there isn’t any dancer anymore – just the dance!

Under Illustration No. 55 entitled the “Trapped Rabbit”, he writes, “Do not attach to the visible perfection (because it’s not the right way to do so.)” This communicates once again that by not attaching to the “visible” perfection, he does not separate himself from his dance. In other words, separation means that he must “watch” himself and figure “as a watcher” how perfect he will be or must be to the audience. Yet, by becoming one through embodiment with his dance, the visible perfection is, alas, no longer necessary.

In this exhibition, Pichet also showcases a few of his drawings that have nothing to do with the 59 poses. One of them is a drawing of two black circles, the smaller within the larger. As a drawing, it’s hardly spectacular and might even call to mind a shooting target if one is not paying an attention to it. But under the illustration, he writes,: “A circle does not have any exit; A circle has all the exits.” This paradox is another wake-up call on that greyish afternoon that everything is relative and, hence, the interesting aspect is how we relate to something. A circle can be perceived of having or having not any exit, depending on how we approach it.

This small seemingly uninteresting (by way of presentation) exhibition hides heaps of powerful messages for those who want to look within. Looking, reading and embracing his texts and illustrations laid out in two unpretentious rows feels like spending time meditating. It seems that Pichet is communicating with us, those who care enough to listen to the depth of his soma. We, the viewers, will receive his message only when we equally open our heart, our soma and our mind.


No. 60 Exhibition/Demonstration

By Pichet Klunchun

CU Art Museum, Chulalongkorn University, until August 25, 2020



By Thai PBS World’s Culture Desk