Go Deeper

REACTION: Jérôme Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself

Posted September 5th, 2008

Two chairs face one another onstage, several feet apart – several more feet, in fact, than you’d expect. This distance is your first clue that what might look like an ordinary conversation on stage, dotted with dance excerpts and one very loud song, is much more than two choreographers just chatting. Perhaps the distance between their chairs marks mutual respect, but it nonetheless seems like the two men have a lot of ground to cover in order to reach shared terrain.

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Pichet Klunchun and Myself begins with French choreographer Jerome Bel asking questions of Pichet Klunchun, whose expertise lies in a classical Thai masked dance form called Khon. What is your name and where do you live? What is the history of Khon? Why do you hold your chin so high? Pichet responds patiently to all of Jérôme’s questions. At Jérôme’s request, he even leads him through a sequence of steps for Khon’s female character. In each dance sequence, Pichet’s technical precision and interpretive grace astound, especially as the audience – along with Jérôme – learns more about what to look for.

In the second half of the show, it’s Pichet’s turn to ask questions. What is your name and what does it mean? Why do you perform steps that appear as though anyone can do them? Why do people need to pay to see these performances? Anyone who’s ever attended a contemporary art event has probably wondered these very same questions, though she may have felt that she risked looking stupid, “uncultured,” or old-fashioned by asking them. If you can relate, pay attention to Jérôme’s take on the concepts that shape his choreography. In an example for Pichet (and us) of making representation conscious of itself, Jérôme holds prolonged eye contact with the audience. It’s a signal that he’s aware that the audience is present in the same space that he is in. Jérôme’s explanations provide a practical introduction to his piece The show must go on that will open next Thursday at the Kimmel Center. If you plan to attend that show, I would suggest that you make it a Jérôme Bel double feature and get to tonight’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself performance. In order to make sense of a particular experience, we need a language appropriate to that experience, and this piece displays well the difficulty of learning that language as well as the rewards of seeing the challenge through.

While this all sounds like friendly, cross-cultural trade and mutual enlightenment, the show also includes subtler signs of uneven exchange. It is not clear at first if Jerome is asking questions of Pichet or questioning him. He gives no explanation for his interest and keeps an expensive laptop computer perched on his knees. Jérôme invites Pichet to ask him questions, but only after he’s satisfied that his part is finished. He even checks his watch, as if to emphasize everyone else’s good fortune that he still has the time to stay. When Pichet tells Jérôme that Khon performances virtually never happen anymore outside of tourist “packages,” we’re reminded of the losses entailed when Western economies impinge on others. As Jerome and Pichet perform the question for us, we are able to ask: what assumptions – cultural, economic, aesthetic – get in the way of intercultural exchange?

Pichet Klunchun and Myself is innovative and beautiful for its technical skill, good humor, and intelligence, but especially because it succeeds at handling these issues with clarity and gentleness.

–Rebecca Steffy

The run for Pichet Klunchun and Myself is over. Jerome Bel’s larger work, The show must go on, premieres on Thursday, September 11th. Click here to learn more.