Unwrapping culture: An artfully choreographed critique of Thailand

Photo by Chris Randle.

Photo by Chris Randle.

Two Southeast Asian contemporary dancers, Pichet Klunchun and Alvin Erasga Tolentino, are set to perform a full-length duet that explores the cultural complexity of traditional, contemporary Thailand in a cross-cultural dialogue that uses the audience, visual media and decorative toys to get it’s point across.

This coming month, the cultural dance will be performed for audiences in Unwrapping Culture at the Scotiabank Dance Centre October 15-17.

Passions align in cultural understanding and origin

The duo began after Tolentinosaw Klunchun perform the solo piece in Thailand and expressed interest in developing Klunchun’s original performance into a two-person piece to merge their ideas and aesthetics. Both dancers have a history of exploring the elements of culture in their work.

Classical art-form tackles current issues

Unwrapping Culture is performed using classical Thai Khon, where the enigmatic form of dance is executed in frog-like motions that resemble the delicate, tactful movement of warriors in a trance.

“It is our responsibility, as Asian artists, to express something meaningful about the state of our culture. The performance is personal but also universal, something that we can all relate to,” says Tolentino, founder of dance company Co.ERASGA, who moved to Canada from the Philippines in 1983.

Klunchun first created the performance inspired by Thailand’s excess waste, something he sees as inappropriate for today’s Thai society. Using elements of Khon, the two choreograph a comical and passionate critique of the corruption of Thai culture through commercialization.

The artist has participated in several intercultural arts programs as a Thai representative and dance choreographer. He is best known for his outstanding performance in classical Thai Khon, which he has practiced since the age of 16, and training with one of the best Khon masters in Thailand, Chaiyot Khummanee. He has travelled both nationally and internationally, collaborating with Jérôme Bel on Pichet Klunchun and Myself, a performance with great critical acclaim. In 2008, Klunchun was awarded the ‘Routes’ ECF Princess Margaret Award for Cultural Diversity by the European Cultural Foundation, for helping combat fear and disrespect of “the other.”

Tradition and innovation

Duo uses toys to get the point across.| Photo by Chris Randle

Duo uses toys to get the point across.| Photo by Chris Randle

Klunchun has developed a conflicting reputation in Thailand, known both as a master of classical Thai Khon, all the while being criticized for contemporizing the dance. He remains interested in uncovering the knowledge that exists in traditional Khon performance and communicating the meaning of it in a way that is relevant to today’s society. It is an element of conflicting tradition and modernity that comes across both in the play, as well as in his day-to-day life.

“I don’t care how people feel about what I’ve been doing. Khon is what I have been living and learning for over half my life. I know it well enough to develop my own technique,” says Klunchun.

The performance includes video installation and the manipulation of sets and props to transform the stage. The dancers share the stage with hundreds of cheap plastic toys and trinkets that Klunchun carefully selected from Thai street markets. All of them have specific symbolism for well-known aspects of Thailand culture. The plastic toys continue to accumulate as the performance goes on. The audience will be able to move freely around the space throughout the performance for a completely immersive experience.

“This performance represents real Thai culture, not the tourist ideal of Thai culture. I try to present the ugly truth of Thailand that the foreigner might not be aware of,” says Klunchun.


For more information, please visit www.thedancecentre.ca.