Defining The Art Of Dance In Thailand
Thanpuying Varaporn Pramoj
Among Thailand’s first generation of ballet practitioners is Thanpuying Varaporn Pramoj, co-founder of one of Bangkok’s oldest dance schools, the Varaporn-Kanchana ballet school. Back in the day, to learn about ballet meant seeing it in old movies and the film that sparked Varaporn’s interest was Red Shoes starring acclaimed ballerina Moira Shearer. “I must have been eight years old when my mother enrolled me in dance classes and I have been in love with ballet ever since,” she says.
Having graduated from the Royal Ballet School in London and having promised her father that she would return as a teacher, Varaporn took an examination at the Royal Academy of Dance and earned a teacher’s qualification. She came home as the representative of the Royal Academy of Dance in Thailand and taught at Chitralada School and Chulalongkorn University. Today Varaporn remains a respected figure in dance circles, whose contribution to the evolution of the Thai ballet scene is undeniable. She also holds the title of president of the Ballet Association of Thailand, a role through which she has been able to support students going to study dance abroad while boosting the evolution of ballet in the country. The Varaporn-Kanchana ballet school, which she co-founded with her sister, boasts several students who are now members of international ballet companies, some even as principal dancers.
As exciting as the idea of Thailand having its own ballet troupe one day might be, Varaporn knows all too well that that is unlikely. “The standard here has gone up tremendously but you need up to 20 dancers of a similar age and high standard to form a company,” she says. “In any given year, you would be hard pressed to find three or four dancers of a required calibre and only a few want to take it up professionally.”
Unsurprisingly, Varaporn’s favourite dance companies include the Royal Ballet Company, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet and more. The mother of five still enjoys going to as many performances as she can. “I love children,” she smiles. “Both my daughters Mondakhan Kridakon and Sumankamon Ratanamangcla are graduates of renowned ballet schools—Bush Davis and the Royal Ballet School.”
Vararom Pachimsawat is founder and artistic director of the Dance Centre School of Performing Arts and Friends of the Arts Foundation. While most ballet students are already learning pliés and ronde de jambes at three years old, Vararom’s parents only agreed to send her to ballet classes when she was eight. “I fell in love with it instantly,” she says. “I knew immediately that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I suffered during my first year…I cried a lot. You have to fight with yourself constantly to be better each day.” It is this understanding of the requirements of hard work, passion and perseverance that Vararom hopes to instill in not only her students but also their parents.
Armed with a teacher’s training diploma from the Royal Ballet School, UK, rather than immediately returning home to the nascent ballet scene, Vararom decided to join the Luzern Ballet and later had a stint with the Zürich Ballet, Switzerland’s largest company, making her the first Thai national to perform with an international dance company. Back in Thailand, she founded the Dance Centre School of Performing Arts with the goal of creating a platform where even adults could come and learn to dance. The school offers a variety of classes in addition to ballet. “We called the school a dance centre because we wanted it to be accessible to everyone, not just to those who are well off and not just for the young but for people of all ages.”
Vararom also founded the Company of Performing Arts Thailand, which has produced many contemporary dance pieces. For over 30 years she has dreamed of a full-scale Thai dance company but “it is not really our culture at the end of the day. Even with some support from the Ministry of Culture and the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Western dance companies are still few and the students need financial help.” It is for this reason that Vararom has been focusing on the Friends of the Arts Foundation, which provides scholarships to many young Thai dancers who are talented but lack the funds to pursue their studies.
Aree began dancing ballet at the age of five but it wasn’t until she had the chance to see a ballet company perform on stage for the first time that she truly embraced its grace and beauty and understood the purpose of all the dance classes that she had to go through. Aree pursued a degree in art at Chulalongkorn University before completing the teacher’s course at the Royal Ballet Academy, UK. She then worked in the foreign service for a few years, teaching this dance form on the side. With ballet instruction in Thailand being so scarce at the time and following words of encouragement from those around her, Aree decided to open her own school: Aree Dance Arts School. Today it is one of the most successful in the country.
What does it take to be a good ballet dancer? “It’s unfair but unfortunately your body type plays an important role,” Aree says. As she explains, there are physical requirements—hip-joint flexibility that should enable you to turn out 180 degrees and arched feet when your feet are pointed, among other criteria. “And of course, one must work extremely hard. It takes a lot of pain, endurance, discipline, passion and a true understanding of the dance.” What it takes to be a teacher, she says, is a whole other story. “A lot of people think that simply finishing your ballet studies means you are able to teach it but that’s really not the case,” she laughs.
Being in the dance studio brings her a sense of calm. “It is like stepping into another world,” she smiles. “When I dance, my body and mind are content.” Aree continues to teach at the school most days of the week and still watches ballet performances whenever she can. “We still have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world,” she says. “The problem is that here, dancing will always come second to singing.” She underlines the importance of changing people’s mind-set to better understand this beautiful form of art.
The art of Khon has been an integral part of Thai culture for centuries. Sadly, however, today it is a dying art with only a handful of dancers trying to preserve it. One of those dancers is Pichet Klunchun. His introduction to the performing arts came during his teen years. “I was never a good student,” he laughs. After running away from home at the age of 16, Pichet met legendary Khon master Chaiyot Khummaneean—an encounter that would change his life forever, seeing him grow from a lost boy to someone who finds safety and a home in dance.
Pichet picked up Khon very quickly and became an exemplary pupil, although something was not quite complete. Another turning point in his life not only enabled him to discover his true self as an artist but also permanently altered his approach to dancing and Khon in particular. He moved to New York on a student grant. “My time there filled in all the missing pieces and answered all my questions,” he smiles. His encounter with the contemporary world of dance and its liberty of movement and expression changed him for good. Rather than abandoning one style for another, however, Pichet continues to preserve the tradition of Khon in his own way.
“It’s hard for me to identify my style,” he says, “because it is a continuous learning process and I do not want to confine myself to a rigid frame.” Stepping away from the dogmatic traditional approach, his work is a deconstruction of Khon movements. “I break everything down, the movements, the counts, and I create something new from scratch,” he says. Among his renowned pieces, the first production to portray his captivating approach to Khon and dance as a whole is entitled The Sacrifice.
Pichet is a force to be reckon with. His unique blend of the contemporary and the traditional has earned him international acclaim, numerous awards and collaborations and performances around the globe, but while he is grateful for such recognition Pichet is at his happiest when he’s on stage immersed in an exhilarating feeling of freedom. Through hard work and years of saving he has finally opened his very own performing space, Chang Theatre, located on the outskirts of Bangkok.
How does a graduate of Chulalongkorn University with a degree in chemical engineering and no prior performance experience become one of the country’s renowned dancer and choreographer? “As a university student I started to take dance courses whenever I had free time,” Jitti explains. “But it was only after I’d seen a live performance by a dance troupe from Belgium and Italy that I really wanted to learn how to dance properly.”
His education in dance started in the genre of rap/hip hop and progressed to jazz, ballet and finally modern dance. Coming late to this creative milieu in his university days meant having to catch up with contemporaries who had been learning and practising for most of their lives. “I had to put in twice the effort as everyone else,” Jitti says. Through perseverance and hard work, he later received a scholarship from the Jean M Wong School of Ballet, Hong Kong, followed by another from the Ailey School in New York. After accumulating experience as a professional dancer and working with international choreographers and directors, he finally established his own 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre in 2010. A year later he earned an outstanding choreography award from the Goethe Institut Thailand. Some of his famous works include 18 Monkeys, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Tightrope Walker and Lieber Adzio.
What makes this free-spirited dancer-choreographer stand out is probably his non-conformist ways and his ability to blend various forms of dance to form a unique piece. “For the past two years I have started to incorporate the idea of moving sculpture into our work,” he shares. “My style is definitely organic and animalistic. We take a lot of inspiration from the movement of animals and mix and match different parts of the body.” Looking forward, the founder of the Kafka Festival—a biennial performing arts festival and platform for outstanding artistic trends—hopes to see the world of dance in Thailand free from the hold of commercial influences.
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