Pichet Klunchun & Myself (Jerome Bêl)

Pichet Klunchun & Myself
By Jerome Bêl in collaboration with Pichet Klunchun
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 3/3/09
Co-presented by Dancers’ Group

“He’s full of contradictions,” comments Guillermo Gomez Peña as we leave the bar and say goodbye to French dance artist Jerome Bêl. More of a conceptualist than a choreographer, Bêl has achieved considerable international success with a series of anti-spectacles that interrogate dance performance and the Western theater.

In his first Bay Area performance, Bêl performed with Pichet Klunchun, a Thai dancer in the Kun tradition. Pichet Klunchun & Myself, which was warmly received in San Francisco, is smart, generous and delightful. Its provocations are its charms.

The performance is like a scripted talk show. Each artist questions the other about his work and gives brief yet evocative demonstrations. In common they share the struggle of finding or developing an audience that can understand their work. How they represent death in performance (or not) is one of many contrasts between their approaches to dance making. Despite Bêl’s almost coy distancing, they are both moved by the other’s work. That is to say, they were moved during their first meeting, of which this performance is a recreation. The performance is a documentary theater piece based on an actual meeting in which they introduced their work to each other. The mood is informal and anti-dramatic, and yet the fourth wall is firmly in place, as are the conventions of theatrical artifice and repetition.

In the lobby after the show, theater artist Kevin Clarke says, “It’s theater, not performance art. It’s a representation of their first encounter, a showing.” When I mention this to Bêl after the performance, he says, “Yes we are representing something. It’s a real fourth wall piece. I’m not proud of it. It’s what happened. We didn’t have time.”

The work has been performed around 100 times since it premiered at the Bangkok Fringe Festival in 2004 and is probably one of the most often presented and written about works of contemporary dance in the past five years. And yet the two men speak as if they’ve never met, and have no idea how the other will respond to their questions or demonstrations. In an interview with choreographer Jess Curtis, Bêl informs that there is no written text and that each performer is free to change the discourse at will. “Depends on our mood, our situation. For example, Pichet says different things if we perform in Thailand, Asia or in the West. I can say specific things if I know that somebody is in the theater and I want to make him/her understand a particular thing.”

After the show Bêl told me that the piece with Klunchun is his first popular success. He added, “The first time we performed it, I thought it was a failure, not to be repeated. We were convinced to remake it in Brussels.” Clearly, it snowballed from there. Previous works have been successful, he pointed out, but only with curators, presenters and a limited contemporary dance audience. The audience in San Francisco, for their Tuesday-night only performance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, included more local choreographers and dance-performance people than at any other performance in the past few years. Explaining his work to Klunchun, Bêl describes the audience for his work as an audience interested in contemporary art. He says he doesn’t return money to dissatisfied patrons because contemporary art does not promise anything, so there is no contract with the audience to break.

The second half of the performance, in which Klunchun interviews Bêl, is a primer in contemporary art aesthetics, tactics, and tensions. Bêl articulates the primary role of research and experimentation, the importance of state funding, a critique of spectacle and representation, a resistance to virtuosity rooted in populism and democracy, and a deconstruction or appropriation of pop culture. Since the late 50s, there has been a genre of dance that investigates dance more than presents dancing. Central to this project is a critical inquiry of Western theatrical practice.

Bêl said that he could no longer find meaning in dance so he took two years off to read philosophy, art criticism, history and more. He cited Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”) as particularly influential. Explaining to Klunchun, Bêl said, “So there was a struggle, how to keep doing performances, which I love, but how to do spectacle without being the société du spectacle?” Since that time, Bêl’s work has been spacious and slow paced. If there is dancing to a pop song, movements generally respond to a single idea and play out for the length of the song. Minimal and conceptual describe his approach to choreography and performance. He said that the slow pace of his work gives the audience room to have a response. UC Davis professor Lynette Hunter notes that most anti-spectacle is not intended to provoke emotional affective response, and yet this one did. Not a communal catharsis, she notes, but instead the performance prompted a particular and open-ended emotional response.

Bêl is moved by Klunchun’s dance of a woman crying upon finding out that her husband has been killed in battle. With gestural precision he shows her hiding tears, and then hardening to anger.
When Klunchun adds the gesture for ‘raining’ to the slow funeral walk, Bêl says, “This is a funeral. It starts to rain. It is sad.” We feel not only the dance, but also Bêl’s feeling of the dance. He is learning to read Kun. Later, Bêl performs a dance in which he dies slowly, or softly, to the sounds of Roberta Flack singing, Killing Me Softly (with his song). Some in the audience laugh at this overly literal joke, but Klunchun is reminded of his mother dying. While the performance reveals the limitations to translation and mutual understanding, their simple gestures of grief seem to transcend cultural difference. The work suggests that cross-cultural respect and understanding require both patience and dancing.

Although their movement demonstrations are brief, each artist reveals an embodied virtuosity rooted in both reverence and concern for dance. It’s as if by limiting the actual dancing to short excerpts that punctuate a spoken conversation, the audience might appreciate dance even more. The work suggests that if you understand the meaning, with space to insert yourself and your concerns, then you’ll consider it “good.”

Klunchun states that western concert dance throws the energy away. He demonstrates a jeté, a leap from one foot to the other. The legs extend forward and back through space, the arms reaching up, as if thrown, releasing something from the hands. Bêl starts to analyze and maybe even to defend but then he agrees. What is not mentioned is that much dance of the past 30 years, even by people extending European classical or modern dance, practices recycling and circulating energy in the body, between bodies, between the body and its environment. This is evident in the influence of Aikido on Contact Improvisation, the dance practices describe as release technique or releasing, Simone Forti’s passages about flow, Alexander Technique in the work of Anne Bluethentahal or Augusta Moore, and William Forsythe’s approach to improvisation. David Zambrano teaches a technique that focuses on recycling energy, except that the ground, the earth, is the center or king, and the body is both indicator and energy itself, moving into and out of the floor. Klunchun’s description of the body as a literal metaphor for a Thai temple, with Buddha at the center and hands and feet continually redirecting energy back to Buddha, offered specific language for re-considering contemporary dance techniques.

We have seen anti-spectacular performance that is intentionally not enjoyable, not pleasing, but as Curtis points out, Bêl’s work is often witty and enjoyable. Bêl addresses this possible contradiction with, “I love that audiences enjoy the work, but not too much. If they just enjoy it, I am disappointed. I am more ambitious than that.”

The thought-provoking work is arguably most contradictory in its relationship to transnational and post-colonial debate. Despite Bêl’s intentions to avoid exploitation, the work simultaneously resists and complies with larger structures of neo-colonialist practice that would privilege a reading of Bêl’s contemporary European dance over Klunchun’s traditional Thai/Kun dance. Within the limited field of contemporary dance and performance, Bêl is famous and funded. Klunchun is neither. Even in their respective countries, their status is neither symmetrical nor comparable. Their performance is theorized, marketed, and presented in contemporary dance contexts, where contemporary is simply the most current, and globalized, version of European and American cultural developments. Klunchun’s work, both by being foreign and by going first, becomes the ground for re-viewing and re-valuing not only Bêl’s work, but our own; we, the white people in the audience, and we, the postmodern dance and performance people who are the most represented ‘community’ in the audience. Simultaneously the conversation reveals the complicated role of the western tourist. In Thailand, as consumers of “traditional” dance, tourists are the primary audience for Kun performance, albeit a performance adapted to tourist attention spans and hotel poolside schedules. Sitting in the audience, resonating with Bêl’s situated knowledge as a European dance artist, I wondered if I/Bêl was just another tourist using the Other as a mirror to see myself more clearly. It is a tribute to the work that it’s surface simplicity and generous spaciousness, provoke personal considerations of cultural shadow. A mirror, indeed.

Pichet Klunchun & Myself is an excellent failure. It paradoxically embodies all that it attempts to critique, in terms of spectacle, a democratic exchange, virtuosity, and the role of the European in global culture. Its contradictions are inspirational, evocative, encouraging, and generative.

If you're interested in Bêl's work, there is a website/archive/catalogue worth checking out.

My review of this work is more of a failure than the performance itself. When I sent this to my prof Lynette Hunter she told me that dance thinker Susan Foster suggested that gender was key to analyzing the piece. I feel dumb that I missed this. Duh, representations and memories of the female body are the primary reference in the work as well as its gateway to feeling, grief, and to bonding. Klunchun dances a woman crying. Bêl dies to the voice of a woman which reminds Klunchun of his own mother dying. Absent and present, woman is, throughout. I look forward to Foster's writing on this.

July 2009, Oaxaca, The Prisma Forum
I just saw this piece for a second time. When Klunchun demonstrates Kun dance, he casts Bêl in the role of the King, counterpoint to Klunchun's role as Demon. Klunchun dances a sequence that illustrates the ineffectiveness of the King's magic arrow, concluding with a tiny yet forceful gesture of flicking his pinky at Bêl. The following conversation between them clarifies that the Demon is telling the King that he is a insignificant piece of shit. It's hard not to see the smirk in this colonial clowning.