That’s Why I Want To Disappoint You

Dance Review: Jerome Bel’s Pinchet Klunchun and myself at DTW

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(Photo by Chris Woltmann)

Do yourself two favors: 1. Don’t read this review. 2. Go and see Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and myself at Dance Theater Workshop, presented in partnership with Performa 07. Then read this review.

Of course, I usually try not to discourage readership on this site, and I also try to refrain from really plugging a show. But I know, had I read a review of this performance, I probably would not have gone to see it. And should you choose to go, this review will be the equivalent of a the spoiler of the century. Trust me when I say that you will not walk away from the experience without a sense of having witnessed something rare and truly worthwhile. You will also, most certainly, have a better grasp of our very particular creative moment, which positions contemporary artists at odds with our own classical forms, and in skeptical view of the classical forms of other cultures.

The talk of the town will most certainly be: But is it dance? You have to really use the broadest definition of dance/choreography to come up with an answer that is “yes.” In the performance–and we can, at the very least, safely say, “Yes, this is performance”–the well known French choreographer (we’ll call him, even though he says he is “not a real one”) and Pichet Klunchun, a Thai choreographer who specializes in Khon (Thailand’s equivalent of western ballet), sit across from each other and re-enact their first meeting, which takes the form of two interviews: First, Bel interviews Klunchun, then they switch roles.

When I walked into the theater and I saw two chairs facing each other, separated by about twenty feet, two bottles of water and a laptop, I was sure this was going to be an utter disaster, a pretentious piece of shit, and something unduly excruciating that I would not be able to escape for the two hour duration I was forewarned about. But after the first noticeably rehearsed moments, when Mr. Bel begins to carefully Mr. Klunchun those simple questions that begin any interview with someone you do not know–what is your name, what do you do, etc.–the two performers eventually settled into a convincing naturalness. Although most of the credit here must be given to Bel. With his theatrical, understated charm (those puppy dog eyes) and a general disheveled, anti-hero demeanor that makes you want to either A.) shrink him and keep him in your pocket (as my companion for the night suggested), or B.) clean him up and make an honest man out of him. Either way, his pathetic vulnerability makes this work, and convinces you to trust what this piece is going for. And what is that, by the way?

If you’ve tried being a contemporary artist lately, you’ll notice a list of dos and don’ts that smack the head of your creative consciousness out of nowhere, like glass walls that burly handlers suddenly swing across your path while your head is down, furiously trying to figure out which way to go.

The first glass wall was bequeathed to us by modernism. That is the one that has the “break from classical forms” tape stretched across it. We are in the habit of breaking tradition in order to reveal the new. That is our, at least, Western expectation of a contemporary artist.

The second, comes from a flawed impulse, which seemed, often, to fuel modernism (but had also fed many of Romanticism’s fantasies), to explore the aesthetics of non-Western cultures. I dare use the term primitivism, but only because others have used it before me. It’s common for Western artists today to take up the study of Eastern forms of music, dance, literature, and most rampantly, film. But there is a large contingent today that works against this impulse, feeling that that kind of process is just replacing our own outdated forms with someone else’s outdated forms. The practice also has a cult of fetish about it, one that idealizes and appropriates. And–as confirmed by Klunchun–the traditional forms of other cultures tend to fall prey to tourism, losing true national identity and becoming more of an amusement that convinces Westerners that they had in fact had a “cultural” experience.

Pichet Klunchun and myself communicates this quandary perfectly, smartly, and in a way that is sincere in its investigation. Bel sits, deeply inquisitive, as he asks Klunchun to demonstrate certain aspects of Khon. We learn that, among other things, death cannot be represented on-stage in Khon (bad luck), and that the general shape that the body learns in Khon is meant to imitate the architecture of Thai temples (a more literal and convicted demonstration of the Western Christian concept of the body as “a temple”). We can all appreciate Kohn in a way we are taught to, that it is a traditional art form, and because of that, it should be valued. There might even be things we find beautiful, but ultimately, it has its place in the past or in a Thai hotel. Still, Klunchun’s mastery of body will impress anyone.

When they switch roles, it is thrilling to watch Klunchun, who had just spent an hour, ironically, as Bel’s monkey (ironic because the character of “Monkey” is the only of the four traditional Khon characters that Klunchun refused to demonstrate–it’s not his specialty) performing rigorous, disciplined dance, now observe the apotheosis of contemporary anti-dance: Bel standing perfectly still, sheepishly, unpretentiously looking around the room in his frumpy clothes (tan carpenter pants and big, hot pink button-up that is not tucked in; sleeves rolled up; white Adidas).

After this particular demonstration, an excerpt from Bel’s 2003 work, The Show Must Go On, when Klutchun says he is disappointed, he expresses the main complaint of many dance lovers who expect to see leaps and jumps and twirls (what is often referred to as danciness) and get their hearts broken, and even feel offended, when not only are there no leaps and jumps and twirls, but when the choreographer seems to be intentionally trying to disappoint them.

But Bel goes on to explain himself to Klunchun, that his work is a “critique of the society of spectacle.” Bel even dismisses his own headiness with a shake of the hands as he’s trying to explain this, but he’s convicted in his heart about his reasons for creating this kind of dance–as a contemporary artist–and he is able, in the end, not to convince us that he’s right, or that his way is the better way, but that there is purpose and meaning behind what he does that can be explained and has cultural value.

Even if you’ve managed to read this far, you should still go see the show, since it is, I fear, maybe even more entertaining that this review/dissertation. And I’m not sure what the point of all of this is, other than, there does seem to be a crisis in contemporary art. Not a kind of crisis that is going to bring the whole thing to a screeching halt, but a crisis of communication that threatens people from enjoying as much as they could in contemporary art. We fear most what we do not understand.

There is an argument out there right now that basically suggests that if a work of art cannot communicate everything on its own to a virgin audience, then the art is academic, pretentious, and ultimately self-serving. But we need explanations for all sorts of things in life. As humans, we have the capacity to appreciate, and we generally learn to appreciate through education or some kind or other. It was an altogether mesmerizing and soul-filling experience to watch Bel and Klunchun demonstrate their very different crafts to each other. Each recognized the autonomous human value of the other’s work. Bel is captivated by Klunchun’s demonstration of a woman crying. Klunchun is moved to recall his own mother’s death when Bel performs his “Killing Me Softly” solo, which is brilliant and funny sad. And in a different way than the Khon is brilliant and serious sad. Underlying Kohn dance is a historical intelligence that is linked to language. Whereas Bel’s work is given its strength by a contemporary intelligence. Khon has a codified system of signs that refer to literal objects, ideas and characters. Whereas ballet is closer to mime than sign language.

The final moment, in this exchange of cultural and artistic viewpoints, culminates in a moment of pure intensity when Bel tries to perform one of his dances that requires nudity. Klunchun stops him and stands. Here is a limit of Klunchun’s willingness to experience Bel’s sensibility. He claims it’s cultural, but there are holes in that argument. But Bel, knowing better than to push–and perhaps knowing that this will make a tangibly suspenseful end–agrees to accept this limit. As they stand in a final face off, they both agree that there are no more questions between them.

The art of this piece is that it is fully scripted. And it works best when it feels like it isn’t, which, fortunately, is most of the time. It’s also very entertaining, and it communicates massive amounts of information, in a way that works of art cannot always communicate on their own. This is art about art. Dance about dance. And mainly, it is about today.

“Pichet Klunchun and myself” runs tonight and tomorrow at DTW (showtime is 7:30PM)

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5 Comments

  1. […] D-Dog’s review of Pichet Klunchun and myself, which we just reviewed/dissertated upon. Although Jennifer Dunning’s piece reads more like a cruise brochure description, she does […]

  2. Just one thing — there AREN’T holes in Klunchun’s last argument — he has the last word, remember? Thai women who work in those heinous clubs which have been set up by and for Western men are not out there doing the same thing Bel is.

  3. Hey Tonya:

    My thought was…that his first objection was that the nudity goes against his culture. But it also goes against our culture. By that, I mean, he was objecting to Jerome getting naked in front of him, which any one of us, well, except for me, would have probably objected to as well. It’s a taboo for both cultures, which is probably why it’s something Bel is interested in exploring, at least from the Western view.

    As for the Thai sex shops, I don’t doubt that he’s right. But those shops are still part of their culture, even if the larger part of their culture rejects them. They exist, and it’s Thai people who work in them. This is a thorny subject. All the more reason to end the piece when it comes up. (Although I really did want to see Bel don the full monty.)

  4. […] “When I walked into the theater and I saw two chairs facing each other, separated by about 20 feet, two bottles of water and a laptop, I was sure this was going to be an utter disaster, a pretentious piece of shit, and something unduly excruciating that I would not be able to escape…” Instead, he says he found “an altogether mesmerizing and soul-filling experience…It’s also very entertaining, and it communicates massive amounts of information, in a way that works of art cannot always communicate on their own. This is art about art. Dance about dance. And, mainly, its about today.” click here to read the rest of his thoughtful review […]

  5. […] Then why try to pin these two together? Because Ross is arguing that Schoenberg is responsible, through totalitarian means and the establishment of private concerts, of disenfranchising the classical audience. Ross believes we are the inheritors of this anti-audience mentality. But Beethoven is really responsible for this, surely. He is arguably the first modern composer, both in personality and style of music. The bottom line is that with the advent of true modernism came an impulse to upend the status quo. IT HAPPENED, and Schoenberg just happened to be there. Right place, right time. He can be held no more accountable than anyone else (save Boulez, wink). In fact, his socio-historical-political context should aleviate him of a lot of the responsibility. He was an artist of his time, and an artist of his time, which is the definition by which we still go today, always seeks the new in an effort to establish his own voice and to critique the present. That’s it. Just ask Jerome Bell. […]


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