Top: Pichet Klunchun speaks inside the home studio for his dance company in Bangkok.
When a celebrated choreographer wanted to restage a performance recently, his options were limited. Just a year ago, Pichet Klunchun’s attempt to crowdfund 4 million baht for another show failed spectacularly.
So bringing the experimental approach he’s used to rethink traditional dance, Pichet found a new approach to funding his work. Last month the artist offered stakes in the performance, about an Elephant King whose sacrifice ends cycles of violence, to 240 people in exchange for contributions of 1,000 baht. They would get a ticket too.
It sold out in four days.
“It’s best for artists to bring audiences closer to their art – without them controlling the artists,” he said. “The model will be further developed and maybe one day the funds generated will allow those with fewer opportunities to have a chance to equally appreciate a performance.”
Pichet has been challenging and redefining Thai dance for over two decades. With his eyes set forward, he spoke on a recent afternoon at his home studio in southwestern Bangkok about the performing arts, his Chang Theatre and attempts to secure a future for his dance company.
He said that his track record and body of work are a benefit, as audiences are familiar with his “unshaken determination.”
“People support me not because my name is Pichet, but because of what I put an effort in for the past 20 years,” the 46-year-old choreographer said of his success finding contributors to underwrite his new performance in exchange for a stake in its success.
Talking to The Audience
The outreach effort began after an April 2016 crowdfunding campaign failed to bring “Dancing with Death,” a performance inspired by Loei’s Ghost Festival or Phi Ta Khon, to Thailand after playing it abroad. In a month’s time, the Meefund campaign reached only 575,700 baht of its 3,990,000 baht goal.
From that, he realized that public relations have always been a weakness for artists. They’re just not good at it. So, Pichet started telling people what he was up to, sharing his views on Thai performing arts and his positions on art and society via Facebook. By doing so, he believed it helped him build an “alliance” with those who want to see the scene flourish and improve.
“Unlike the stereotypical perception, artists aren’t deities who are superior and out of reach. We can communicate directly with our audience,” Pichet said. “And Facebook Live allows us to express and get feedback immediately what we couldn’t get through mainstream media or a blindfolded society.”
To Pichet, the success of his recent funding effort means more than just one more performance, but sustaining other companies using the same model.
Old vs. New
Pichet has long been at the forefront of the debate between those who believe traditions cannot be touched – no matter how irrelevant they risk becoming – and those looking to update and reinvent it for new audiences and eras.
At 16, he began training in traditional Khon, a court art which uses dance to tell stories from the Ramakien epic. Most Khon artists take on a role for life, and Pichet assumed the guise of the demon. It proved an apt role, as his future work adapting and playing with the traditional Khon format would bedevil the masters who believe it cannot be touched.
Pichet has staged performances remixing Khon with new wave theatrics, modern dance moves, glowing costumes and experimental movement. Though this earned the contempt of the traditionalists, Pichet has said the alternative was letting traditional dance become dust-covered museum relic, forgotten to the living world.
‘Ganesh’ retells a story three times starting with recognizable, traditional Khon, to modern to postmodern, meta-weird commentary.
Over the years, Pichet has won over some of those critics and masters, and now he wants to change how audiences think about the arts.
Whereas visual artists need but canvas and time, performances require money and space.
The performing arts were once the domain of institutions, and the challenge now is for them to thrive without that support. Pichet explained that art theatres and performances first occurred in educational institutions, with professor directors and student performers and student audiences. Productions were created without headache as the university provided funding and the space.
Pichet hopes that if people can separate art as a profession from art as institutional product, they’ll understand and be more comfortable supporting artists.
“Art professionals are those who train and put all their efforts into art,” he said. “Our duty is to innovate new things for the future and by progressing, we won’t repeat the old.”
According to Pichet, most traditional artists are government officers on stable incomes. Those reliable paychecks, he believes, make them unmotivated to innovate, as they get paid the same regardless of what effort they put into their work.
On the other hand, contemporary artists must innovate to sell tickets. That’s the pressure that leads to them being disdained as rebels, as Pichet has faced throughout his career.
“Some people in traditional dance circles think they are protectors and sole owners of the art and possess full authority that society must obey,” he said. “But in fact, traditional dance is now unstable, as new generations are prone to move forward.”
Asked about how to address the divide, Pichet simply said that there’s no need to. Contemporary artists will continue creating new work, and the public will decide what has value and what does not.
Thai Dance Today
Pichet says the scene has improved during the past five years, as more performers are being invited to join international festivals, which he thinks is the best way for them to be exposed to what artists are doing around the world.
“Those who study performing arts must go beyond what’s taught in the classroom,” he said. “Everyone must take some time to appreciate other art forms so that they can cultivate their future work.”
Another important skill for Thai dancers? English language skills, he said.
Only about 5 percent of dance graduates can communicate in English, he said, and that’s a barrier to succeeding as there are no dance festivals in Thailand
“If I couldn’t speak English, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today,” he said.
Pichet began performing abroad in 1999, four years before he received the one of Thailand’s highest honors in the arts, the Silpathorn Award. In 2008, he received a an award for cultural diversity from European Cultural Foundation and in 2014, he became the first Thai to earn a John D. Rockefeller award from the New York-based Asian Cultural Council.
“Performing abroad helps people know about traditional Thai arts, and in return, artists get to see the world and can broaden their horizons in their work,” Pichet said.
Company and Theatre
The Pichet Klunchun Dance Co. was founded in 2004 as the LifeWork Co. to create contemporary performances based on traditional dance.
Thirteen years later, Pichet is still figuring out how the performing arts can survive, expand and change the public’s perceptions about what they are.
To do so, the five members of his company must be dedicated. Pichet plans everything a year in advance to make sure his troupe can get by for a year. And he insists they learn how to make their own living.
“The Pichet Klunchun Dance Company will be gone when I’m gone,” he said, firmly. “No one will inherit my company. They have to found their own, unique company.”
Each day the troupe gathers to practice in a cozy studio built in Pichet’s home. There, everyone is expected to always be learning, whether from other members or foreign artists who want to train or collaborate with the company. Given an opportunity, he also encourages his dancers to spread their wings elsewhere.
Within 10 years, Pichet wants to open a Khon dance school in his style so that new generations can learn new tradition and new knowledge from experienced teachers who are currently learning from Pichet.
But before that, after at least two years in the making, his Chang Theatre will officially open with the May 26 to 28 premiere of “Phya Chattan,” the first run of which will be exclusively for those who invested as stakeholders. Shows a week later June 2 to June 4 will be open to the public.
To Pichet, the theatre is the “Theatre of Fighters,” as its history dates back almost 10 years to when he had no permanent venue. He had been given a townhouse in Wireless Road’s Soi Nai Lert by a patron to convert into a theatre. Pichet named it “Chang Theatre,” not for the beer brand but the first letters shared by the names of his patron’s husband and his revered Khon masters, Chaiyot Khummanee and Chonprakhan “Kru Chang” Janthareuang.
When Pichet moved out to Soi Pracha Uthit 59 in the capital’s Thung Khru district, he took the name with him and began building the 80-seat theatre in 2014.
He hopes it will draw audiences from downtown and artists looking for a space to practice and perform. Combined with his space at the upcoming lifestyle venue ChangChui, the artists’ prospects are bright for having proper space to produce quality work.
Pichet has been further exploring the possibilities of the form my deconstructing it, like someone might take apart a toy to learn about it.
He’s now working a show of illustrations in which he reduced 59 traditional positions into simple line drawings. “The Interpretation of Thep Phanom” will be shown at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre curated by Sulak Sivaraksa, the intellectual and social commentator who collaborated with Pichet on 2016’s politically charged “Prach Thon Thook” performance.
While a photobook is on the way, Pichet has produced “Number 60,” a performance from in which his company models the infinite points of expression in between the 59 formally recognized positions.