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BEYOND THAI SHTICK IS ANCIENT RITUAL, DRAMA

In a city where enormous effigies of characters from ancient dance-drama guard the glittering Royal Palace, traditional dance is easily accessible to any visitor.

Even a few hours spent cruising the outlying Bangkok canals on a rice barge will probably include a dockside display of children’s dancing, and most of the day tours that visit the Bridge on the River Kwae or the Floating Market at Damnoen Saduak wind up with a sampler program at the Rose Garden about 20 miles south of the city.

Along with many theater-restaurants, the Oriental Hotel offers an expensive dinner-show nightly in its annex across the river and free, Kodak-sponsored entertainments take place on the hotel grounds each Sunday afternoon.

All these tourist performances emphasize variety--combining everything from court dances to cockfights, excerpts from masked epics to bouts of Thai boxing. Even the showcase program to be given by the Royal Thai Ballet at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, B.C., this July will include a simulated stick-fight along with glimpses of religious ritual and ancient dance-drama.

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To get beyond such potpourri programming (with its unflattering assumptions about the Western attention-span), visitors don’t have to go far. Unlike conditions in Rangoon, Seoul, Jakarta, Taipei or Singapore, authentic dance performances can be sampled in Bangkok every day of the year.

Near the Palace, across the street from what was once the Royal Cremation Ground is Lak Muang, an unprepossessing shrine housing Bangkok’s guardian spirit. Ever since King Rama I founded the city in 1782, people have come here to worship, to buy and free caged birds or to sponsor dance programs as acts of thanksgiving.

Today, a working-class audience of three dozen people is sitting in the dusty courtyard along two sides of the long, narrow, high-roofed wooden stage while a seven-member percussion band occupies the third side. At the back is an ornate bench in front of a garish painted backdrop and two entrance portals.

Few of the women hired to appear here fit the young/slender/delicate temple-dancer stereotype. Their six-hour offertory drama lurches from sentimental love scenes to florid depictions of intrigue to broad comedy and stylized combat, punctuated by baleful singing and dances for both soloists and groups of four. Even the replicas of bejeweled court costumes are often frayed at the edges and held together with safety pins.

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Yet audience members are quick to assure the sole foreigner who has joined them today that the performance is “No. 1 in Thailand” (emphasized with a vigorous thumbs-up gesture) and they not only insist that the visitor’s cameras be uncapped and aimed at the stage, they even suggest which dancers best deserve to be photographed.

As scene numbers are added and checked off on a blackboard behind the musicians, one of the women characters in the drama ponders the significance of the previous dialogue sequence, mops an imaginary tear with a quivering finger and sings, her wrists and hands twisting and undulating, her fingers curving outward.

When she dances, her weight is back on her right foot while the left is bent at the knee, raised off the floor and turned out--a familiar enough posture from the tourist sampler programs and the dolls sold as souvenirs. But here it forms part of a network of expressive movement, part of the trajectory from stylized gesture to intricate ceremonial dance (and from speech into song) that exists in many traditional Asian dance-theater idioms, classic and popular.

Across town, by a noisy intersection near the Erawan Hotel, four women in ornate court costumes and pagoda headdresses move to each of the corners of the small, fenced-in, roofless shrine area, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of a single drum and Thai xylophone--and oblivious to the many worshipers and passers-by.

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They, too, have been hired for devotional rituals, but, unlike the folk extravaganza at Lak Muang, their performance is so brief, formalized and unemotional that it quickly seems minimalist and private: not intended for human eyes.

Influenced by Thai court forms (which themselves reflect earlier idioms), the types of religious ritual and folk theater that can be seen at the Erawan and Lak Muang shrines retain unmistakable links to classical Thai dance-drama. Thus shrine visitors lucky enough to be in the city when the Department of Fine Arts performs at the 20-year-old, 1,500-seat National Theatre may find themselves unexpectedly at home in an aristocratic dance tradition older than Bangkok itself.

In khon (ancient masked dance-drama), for instance, the demon-hordes from the Hindu epic “The Ramayana” dance a martial ensemble featuring much the same formal repetitions in different directions as the Erawan shrine dances. And the shifts in mood and mixture of disciplines in a three-hour khon performance (a selection of episodes from a Sanskrit narrative with 24,000 verses and hundreds of characters) parallels on an exalted level the relentless variety of the Lak Muang drama.

The National Theatre, too, is familiar in layout--with its side portals and wide forestage, though here a 55-foot stage opening permits elaborate settings to be used for some scenes and then changed while other scenes are played in front of the proscenium arch.

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Khon can be as spectacular as a procession of 25 red-, blue- and gray-masked monkey-soldiers--wearing ornate, sparkling costumes in matching colors--ending with mass balances on one leg (the free foot again held up and turned out) and forceful hopping on it.

Or it can be as intimate as the last solo of the defeated demon-king, Thosakanth: a dance of mournful, imploring gestures ending with a flash of his old arrogance as he accepts his doom and stalks off.

As a classic idiom, khon observes stylistic conventions dating back 645 years to the sack of Angkor, when Thai armies carried off the entire Khmer court and its ancient dance heritage as well. Thus the language is archaic and the movement mirrors aspects of a shadow-puppet idiom now largely extinct.

As a living art form, however, khon relies on modern theater technology, including sound amplification, slide projection, strobe light and scrim effects.

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In these extremes of old and new, khon resembles modern Bangkok. And just as the National Theatre is only a few blocks away from Lak Muang, so the dazzling khon and the modest shrine performance are close in their sense of physical splendor, their concept of cosmic order, and, above all, their vision of profound spiritual forces at war on every level of existence.


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