Dances, Puppets and Elephants on a Grand Scale : Postcard from Thailand.
The hit song from Chess claims “One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster,” but frankly you’re going to need much more than one night to savor Thailand’s theatrical delights, as Peter Pinne found out when he became Stage Whispers’ first official foreign correspondent.
It’s twenty years since I’ve been to Thailand and in that time there’s been a quiet theatrical revolution going on. The Thais have put a contemporary spin on their culture, built two of the biggest Cultural Theme Parks in Asia, and have seen a resurgence of interest in their traditional Performing Arts.
SIAM (pronounced SeeAm) NIRAMIT, which translated means “Siam Magic,” is a Cultural Theme Park set on 10 acres of land in the middle of Bangkok. It cost 61 million A$ (1.5 Billion Baht) to build and features a gigantic stage (listed in the Guiness Book of Records as having the highest proscenium in the world at 12 metres), a theatre that seats 2,000, a traditional Thai village, an outdoor entertainment area, plus Thai massage house and restaurant. The project was five years in the planning. The producers firstly decided what part of Thai history they wanted to present and then wrote a script. When they got it right they built the theatre to the script requirements.
Journey To The Enchanted Kingdom of Thailand opened October 2005, and is an 80 minute spectacular show in the Disney tradition, but on a grander scale, with 150 performers, 100 backstage crew, and 102 sets, the longest of which is the Royal Barge at 7 metres. The show is a look back at history. There is a sequence of hell, heaven and the Mythical Forest, and finally celebration. It features a water curtain, fire, special effects, characters flying up and over the set, and a parade of elephants and other animals.
Pum Narisa is the prima ballerina of the show and its star. A third generation thespian, she knew how to command a stage and had great comic timing. Now 31, she started dancing at 12. Most of the performers are in their twenties and are recruited from University Arts courses. Before the show opened they rehearsed for a year. Even now, they rehearse every day. The performance was given in Thai with an English voice-over. At 1,500 Baht (A$60) per person it’s not a cheap night for the average local shop assistant, who makes 6,000 Baht per month (A$240), but is on a par with ticket prices elsewhere.
Puppets have been in Thai Arts since the 14th Century, but the Joe Louis Theatre of Thai Theatrical Puppetry has only been in existence since 1996, when His Majesty the King bestowed the title of National Artist on legendary puppeteer, Sakom (better known by his nickname of Joe Louis), enabling him to revive this arcane and dying art. Single-handedly he’s been responsible for the resurgence of interest in this form of stylized theatre, which requires three puppeteers to synchronize their efforts in the manipulation of each puppet, whilst appearing on stage with them. The troupe have been awarded first prize at the World Festival of Puppet Art in Prague twice and deservedly so.
Their performance of the Birth of Ganesha is nothing short of astounding. It tells the story of the young boy who ends up with an elephant head, from Ramakian, (the Thai version of the Indian epic, Ramayana). With each puppeteer trained in Thai classical dance, the choreography is fluid, inventive, and executed with the most delicate artistry, as they portray the four traditional characters of Kohn dance, the male, female, monkey and demon. A group of six musicians, seated, accompanied the piece on Thai traditional instruments. The performance was in Thai with English translations on small screens on either side of the stage. The company’s repertoire also includes contemporary stories with pop-culture characters such as Elvis and Michael Jackson (a hit when they tour schools). They are soon to create a Beyonce puppet.
The company is run by Sakom’s son, Surin, who started dancing at 7, became a puppeteer at 16, and is now 41. The puppeteers spend 30 minutes a day doing yoga and meditation, with fitness and sports playing a big part in their everyday routine. Surin believes that “meditation makes a person more motivated.” Their working day is 1PM to 9.30PM, six days per week. The troupe, who tour to other cities, gave performances in Sydney in April 2008.
A commercial version of Khon Masked Dance, Hanuman the Mighty, an excerpt from the Ramakien story, plays at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre every Friday and Saturday night. The art deco theatre, originally built as a movie palace in 1933, has only recently (2006) been converted as a live performance venue with high-tech lighting and sound. The company, created 3 years ago, are a newly-formed troupe of young dance graduates who are enhancing their skills as Khon performers in this production.
Traditionally all Khon performers wore masks, but in this contemporary version only the monkey and demon characters retain them. The performers are an enthusiastic and dedicated bunch of teenagers and young adults. The costumes and sets are lavish and spectacular, with some of the 60 actors having to be sewn into their costume at each performance. It’s painstaking and labor intensive. Ticket prices range from 1,000-1,200 Baht (A$50-70), and the performance is done with English surtitles.
The interest in Thai traditional arts is also being felt at a grass roots level in the province of Rachaburi, where well-known dancer and choreographer Manon Meejamrat has created an arts community set in an orchard of mango trees. The Suan Silp Ban Din centre is an institute that teaches Thai traditional dance, music, and folk arts. Patravadi Mejudhon is their benefactor. A Thai movie and TV star who’s worked in Los Angeles, New York and London, she’s a great supporter of Thai traditional and contemporary arts. She has her own theatre and performing arts school in Bangkok.
The Art Centre opened 18 months ago and has started a local monthly Arts Festival, All About Art, down by the riverside markets. This year they hosted the Fringe Festival 2009, an international festival that for the previous 8 years has been held in Bangkok.
I saw the final night of the Fringe, which had performances by a Japanese group Wangnin Bunmei (4 musicians/3 dancers), who did a piece called Wangnin Train. The stage was filled with large empty cardboard boxes, and the concept was of homeless people living in cardboard boxes in railway stations, which is apparently prevalent in Japan. The cleverest section was when a girl in a tutu did the pas-de-deux from Swan Lake. She sat on a boy's shoulder (he was in a box), with her tutu covering his face and her arms became his legs. It was funny burlesque.
The Beauty Of Argentine Tango had two dancers creating a modern tango to a 90s pop song. Alex Dea, a New York based African American music and dance artist, who comes to Rachaburi every year to create new work, did a piece called A Great Sadness. It mixed illusion, with hip-hop and Thai classical dance. It was pretentious, short on dance, and long on tedium.
Manon Meejamrat closed the Festival with an inventive piece as a Queen, dressed in flowing white silk and covered in white body paint. In this solo performance he was illuminated by someone in black holding a large arced lamp over his head. He finished his dance by moving down to the riverbank, climbing into a canoe, and being paddled out into the middle of the river. All this was done against a backdrop of fireworks and lighted balloons, which floated up into the clear night sky, at one point passing the moon. It was a genuine magic moment.
Finally, the Jewel in the Crown, FantaSea, the world’s biggest cultural theme park, which is on Phuket Island, and is the longest running permanent show in Asia. The brainchild of Kittikorn and Sopida Kewkacha, the creators of Safari World in Bangkok, it’s spread over 140 acres and contains a 3000 seat theatre, a 4000 seat restaurant, Tiger Jungle Adventure, Elephant rides, a festival village with carnivals, games, handicrafts, and shopping. The complex cost 35 Billion Baht (1.4 Billion A$) to build and opened in February 1989. It’s open every day of the week except Thursday.
The show, Fantasy of a Kingdom, is billed as a Cultural Illusion Show and features 150 performers dressed in 686 costumes and using 621 props, 200 backstage crew, 34 elephants, 6 buffalo, 400 birds, 40 goats and a handful of chickens. It’s a mix of Disney, Vegas, Cirque de Soleil, traditional circus and Bollywood all rolled into one.
Once again, it takes stories from Thai history and gives them a contemporary spin with a soundtrack of Thai pop. Even the two lovers could have jumped straight out of a Thai soap opera. The aerialists are breathtaking, the flock of white birds, which fly around the theatre, are thrilling, and the half-a-dozen chooks which run from one side of the stage to the other in a straight line, are not to be believed. How did they ever train them to do that? Then, of course, there are the elephants - 34 of them - who just keep coming on, and on, and on, and who do more tricks than I’ve ever seen any circus elephant do in a lifetime. In the middle of the show there’s an illusion sequence where one audience member gets sawn in half. It seems totally incongruous to the rest of the piece, but it’s funny.
The whole show is outrageously camp, a hoot, and tremendous entertainment. As I overheard one outgoing American tourist at the airport say to another, who was incoming, ‘whatever you do, don’t miss FantaSea,’ and I agree. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else in the world.
So on your next stopover to London, make sure you schedule more than One Night in Bangkok to experience its diverse theatrical smorgasboard. I guarantee it will thrill and excite you.
Peter Pinne flew to Thailand courtesy of Royal Thai Airways and the Thai Consulate of Australia.
Image: Siam Niramit