Pichet Klunchun and Myself, a performance directed by Jerôme Bel, at the Alkantara Festival in Lisbon
Is it really that simple? Dancer X meets dancer Y, asks dancer Y some questions, dancer Y demonstrates, than vice versa, dancer Y interrogates dancer X... and you have a show?
Jerôme Bel, the master of entertaining conceptual performance (that some still call dance), seems to like simple formats: dance to (pop) music (The Show Must Go On), discover the body (Jérôme Bel), explain what you do (Isabel Torres). This time, the idea is of a meeting. Two people from different cultures, unknown to each other, meet. They sit down and ask each other questions about who they are and what they do and why they do what they do.
For some time, it might seem like a TV program. Pichet Klunchun, a Thai traditional dancer, tells his story and his art, he explains the basics of his work, and translates the complex vocabulary of Khon, an incredibly formal dance theater. Just a few elements distinguish this from a talk show: the attitude of Bel - respectful and purposefuly ignorant (the only element on stage besides two chairs is Bel's laptop), some very carefuly prepared answers and actions. Bel asks well. Almost as if by chance, the topic becomes death. Klunchun's incredibly slow and formal dance entry, showing one of the ways they represent death in Khon, is one of the shows most touching moments.
Another is the Thai's reaction to Bel's presentation of how he dies on stage. Because - you guessed it - the roles switch and now it is up to Bel to show the power of his art. Klunchun asks apparently innocent questions, Bel gives apparently silly answers. Klunchun is suprized, but accepts them and appreciates them. And somehow convinces us, through this strong, deep reaction, than there is more to Bel's provocative on-stage attitude (he openly admits he provokes the public, because they'll pay for the ticket anyway) than just provocation.
It is a beautiful meeting. There isn't a sign of interpretation, it all looks fresh and honest, nearly genuine. The show-and-tell format allows us to feel comfortable, as if the show went on and off, giving us plenty of room to think or just be comfortable. Of course, that is also the idea behind talk shows and circus: show a little, talk a little, don't make it too hard on the audience. But that is something I can live with. I much prefer this to actually trying to make it too hard on the audience which is so often the case. We are simple people, we see the show once, we don't know you and are unsure if we want to know you - don't scare us away too fast, please.
If there is something I found less convincing, it was the manipulative and somehow stereotypical way of seeing this meeting. Here is what I mean. Klunchun is Thai and dances a traditional Thai dance. But he says himself that he has lived in the West for many years and studied Western dance. And, although he claims he "didn't understand it", from his questions one could deduct he simply didn't understand a single thing, or lived isolated from the world. They are questions of a traditional Thai dancer, but I'm not sure such a dancer actually exists, let alone in that theater. It seemed more like Bel needed a somewhat naive, innocent character, asking the simple questions, so he could explain what he did. And that's a pity, because it would be quite fine if Klunchun simply admitted he will ask some questions from the traditional Thai point of view, as apparently he became interested in this perspective once again (in real life, that is).
Another question, which has been bothering me in several other performances, is the convention of "first time meeting". Why should we accept it, if we are to assume they are being honest? Isn't this cheating, as in, not admitting that you're not being genuine, you are reproducing something? But what alternatives are there?