Dance in Bangkok: as Hot as Tom Yum Soup

Ballettanz 1 Apr 2001English

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Movement and action thicken as you gravitate from the Don Muang airport toward the metropolitan area of Bangkok. Nine million people and two million vehicles traverse 600 square km of urban-planning hell and economic cesspool every day. Politicians, monks and whores alike strip and get power-stripped. Praying, shopping, fucking and eating - the pecuniary rituals and pious pleasures in the City of Angels.

One might forget that there is, in fact, dance. The city’s latest choreographic scheme is an overland metro system to combat evil traffic. Tourists and citizens can now hit their weekend haunt - the giant Chatuchak Market - without snaking through humid heat and traffic jams. All wish for the year-old infrastructure to expand its lines - who cares if this further scars the cityscape. Meanwhile, like Thai classical dance, the familiar tuk-tuk (a frisky two-wheel motor-shack) becomes a relic with diminishing utility.

Overtaxed editors, get Thai massage from lady No.92 at Silom Bodie Care! Like her fellow natives with monosyllabic nicknames, our masseur’s moniker is M. First, M.’s artful palms and fingers press over your body, as she shifts her weight to vary the pressure. Aches dissolve and the mind clears, and your limbs enter a pas de deux of rigorous patterns and voluntary will. Your legs rise mid-air; M’s elbows meet your thighs; your body flops over; M’s feet says hello to your back. The two-hour somatic dialogue costs but 350 baht (8 euro).

How do we eschew consumption, tourist images, cultural stereotypes and (s)exotic representations? Honestly, these are the last questions on my mind when I am overwhelmed by body practices in the kingdom where art and desire, ethics and perception blur and expand.

No genetic engineering is as intriguing as Nature’s outlaws assembled in busy Patpong. At King Castle III, transsexuals with perfect skin and implants observe themselves in the mirror while gyrating in gratuitous absence and uncertain presence. Machismo parades over at Dream Boys where studs dance among soap-suds, candle-wax and neon-paint, and fuck with gymnastic skill. Their dispassion and virtuosity wowed even Sasha Waltz’s dancers who performed last fall at the Cultural Centre before Thai royalty.

Sleaze, you say. But embodied as art, sex-dancing in Bangkok (however predictable) is a spectacle based on craftmanship. Industry competition sets demanding standards. What can a woman perform with her genitals? Think of frogs, razor-blades and opening Coke bottles. In Siam, this is performance art par excellence. But think also of HIV, pedophiles, labour exploitation, etc. Are such the concerns of art? Can we have sluts for art’s sake?

Purists, be assured that ‘authentic’ art is truly rare today. At Chulalongkorn University, a few surviving gurus impart the lakhon nai (dance drama) and khon (masked pantomime) traditions to pupils who will likely become commercial dancers in dinner revues or roadshows. Some alumni of the institution are, however, boosting the dancescape. A khon-prodigy, Pichet Klunchen, fuses old with new sensibility through a notational re-look at tradition, and gains growing interest from dance presenters in America.

Despite no public funding, Sirithorn Srichalakom (‘Mum’) ran the recent Bangkok Fringe Festival, which supported local and regional dance-makers. This took place at the Patravadi Theatre whose sprawling complex beside the Chao Phraya River will be a strong nexus for tomorrow’s dance. A protégé of Patravadi, Manop Meejamrat, has deftly absorbed Asian and Western idioms and now pursues a daily regime in Thai classical and folk dance. In search for his roots, he undresses the classical body of constrictions by starting point-zero from the dancer’s physical preparation and by wearing of costume.

Elsewhere on the city fringe, in Rangsit Stadium, Soidown (‘Fallen From the Sky’) dreams of the Olympics. At 17.5 ft and 48kg, she was the 1999 flyweight champion in female Muay Thai boxing - the best of only 50 female pros nationwide. To fly fast and frenzied using her feet and fists, she rises at 5h30, jogs 19km at 6h, trains till 9h, rests and re-trains from 3 to 5h. ‘I’ve broken teeth and cut my eye but I’m not afraid to spill blood - my own or that of my opponents’. Spurned by the male-centric confederacy, she quips, sharp as tom-yum soup: ‘I think that today in Muay Thai, men and women are finally equal but, outside the ring, there are still many inequalities in Thai society. Boxing is only the start’.

What is dance without spice in politics? Gestures from individuals like Soidown signal moving culture in Amazing Bangkok.