King of khon

Acclaimed choreographer hopes to keep Thai traditional art forms alive for future generations

PUBLISHED : 2 NOV 2021 AT 04:00


Choreographer Jitti Chompee’s in-depth research into the Thai historical art form khon has accumulated into contemporary works that intermingle the old and the new that can captivate current generations which may have grown distant from traditional roots.

In September, Jitti was awarded the insignia of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) by the French culture minister for his role in promoting the performing arts in Thailand. This distinction recognises his profound approach in merging traditional Thai dance with contemporary dance through his choreographed works. Jitti’s new creations in 2021 include the contemporary performance School Of Ganesh and a five-episode short documentary film along with a research and photography book both titled Miscellany Of Khon.

The elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, the patron deity of the arts and sciences, holds a profound significance for traditional performing artists and educators in Thailand. Jitti was inspired by this faith in the arts and education to create School Of Ganesh as an experimental model for his research into the “Body Architecture” and “Moving Sculpture” concepts. He hopes this will lead to creativity workshops in the future geared towards students who train in traditional dance.

The works from School Of Ganesh reinterpret the traditional khon narration and present it in a more contemporary approach. Photo: Piyatat Hemmatat

Peculiar beings are bred from the extraordinary School Of Ganesh. In viewing the body as a moving sculpture, Jitti experiments with bodily absurdities and the embodiment of characters from the Thai epic Ramakien including humans, animals and demons. In his fascination with animalism, he fuses animal masks with the human body to create mythical cross-bred characters. His creatures are created by exploring the unique physiologies of different bodies. Life and myth are interwoven into an eccentric world.

Balloons are used as aesthetic objects that are as imaginative and expressive as traditional khon masks. Jitti researches the emotional expression of bare faceless balloon heads in place of khon masks. This minimalistic approach allows the power of bodily expression to tell its story. Moving sculptures with headless bodies, balloons, and masks comprise Jitti’s school of creatures.

Photos: Pakorn Musikaboonlert

School Of Ganesh defamiliarises our preconceptions on tradition by reimagining the interpretations of traditional khon narration. With Jitti’s style of fragmented storytelling and particular sense of humour, he selects famous excerpts from traditional khon performance such as the scene about the rejection and revenge of Shurpanakha, a female demon character, and the scene where Rama crosses the sea to depict his scenographic interpretations. He explores the embodiment and portrayal of femininity in khon through Shurpanakha. The sounds and visuals of this contemporary creation encapsulate the charm of Thai ritual and mythology in a subtle manner. Traditional literature is presented in a new light that can ignite new meanings and perceptions of mythology in khon.

A diverse group of performers is brought together to form a unique symbiosis between the traditional and the contemporary.

Anucha Sumaman and Yarnawut Traisuwan, traditional khon artists from the Fine Arts Department and the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute, are joined by dancers from the 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre. The French embassy has also fuelled a fruitful exchange by supporting Eloïse Grastilleur and Grégoire Manhès, two dancers from the Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique et Danse de Lyon in France, to perform in this production.

This special performance premieres at Lido Connect on Nov 12-15 at 7pm. Audiences can also catch an early preview of School Of Ganesh at 5pm on Saturday at Alliance Française Bangkok where Jitti will present a performance demonstration. Following the preview will be a screening of the Miscellany Of Khon documentary film along with a documentary film by Grégoire and Eloïse about their experience in Jitti’s creation process.

Pakorn Musikaboonlert

School Of Ganesh does not present khon itself but draws inspiration from khon narration and particular techniques discovered from the research into traditional khon. The research project Khon: The Human Body: Embodiment, Knowledge Management led by Thanpuying Sirikitiya Jensen and Jitti Chompee began in 2020. The process involved consistent personal conversations with traditional khon specialists and performers. This resulted in a short five-episode documentary film produced by the Fine Arts Department that conveys essential elements and untold stories of khon in stunning contemporary visuals. A deep-dive into the hidden insights of the khon art form is presented through a book called Miscellany Of Khon produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture. As oral tradition is a prominent method in the passing on of traditional knowledge, this book captures the subtleties in khon that are often overlooked or even undocumented. The insights highlight the delicacy and brilliance of the Thai ancestors that may diminish with time. The book also features a photography collection of Jitti’s khon-inspired creations. Audiences and readers will surely be surprised by the fascinating gems hidden within the khon art form that are brought to the surface through a contemporary lens.

The book launch of Miscellany Of Khon will be hosted at The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage on Nov 20. The afternoon will begin with a conversation with Pornprapit Phoasavadi, associate professor of Thai traditional music at Chulalongkorn University, and Surapong Rohitajol, senior musical artist from the Fine Arts Department, on “The Miscellany Of Khon Music: Minimalism In Sound Design For Music Performance” (3-4pm). This talk will be enlivened by demonstrations from a full Piphat Mai Khaeng ensemble (a hard mallet ensemble) from the Fine Arts Department. The day will proceed with a screening of the Miscellany Of Khon (4-5pm) and end with a conversation between Thanphuying Sirikitiya Jensen and Prof Chetana Nagavajara titled “Back To The Basics: A Dialogue Between The Traditional And The Contemporary” (5-6pm).

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