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  1. #1
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    Reviving the art of KHON

    Organisers of a classical masked khon dance performance are trying to attract young people into the art in more ways than one

    Story by Kloykamol Biribhakdi




    A group of construction workers toiled away in their attempt to revamp the Sala Chalermkrung theatre with a fresh yet classic look. The former cinema's revitalisation is part of a wide-reaching project to renew interest in the Thai classical khon masked dance.

    Organised by the Sala Chalermkrung Foundation in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Bureau of the Crown Property, the Khon-Sala Chalermkrung: Chakra Avatar Episode is being held to celebrate the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King's accession to the throne.

    While khon dance has been performed for centuries in Thailand, what sets this production apart from others is that its cast and crew consist mostly of young people.

    Most of the 60 cast members, musicians, costume designers and stage staff are young khon graduates. In fact, some of them are still in college.

    Each year, the country produces almost 200 graduates who major in khon from 12 colleges of dramatic arts.

    "There are young people who are really interested in Thai traditional performance," said Pairoj Thongkumsok, the director and a former khon lecturer at Bangkok Dramatic Arts College. He is now a drama and music expert at the Ministry of Culture's Fine Arts Department.

    Unfortunately, he added, most of them have difficulties finding a proper career in the field due to a lack of job vacancies.

    Associate Professor Pornrat Damrhung, a lecturer at the Department of Dramatic Arts at Chulalongkorn University, and the show's producer, agreed that opportunities are few and far between for people who are trained in traditional arts - with many seeking employment well outside the realm of the arts.

    "Some turn to work as messengers, others termite exterminators. The most relevant career they could manage to get is to be a teacher or lecturer of traditional Thai performance."

    In this light, many graduates of khon will be revelling in the opportunity to take part in the performance.

    To become proficient in the art of khon dance, students must study the art for at least five to seven years.

    According to Pairoj, one needs many skills to be a good khon performer. He or she must have strong and flexible muscles and must be able hold a position with their knees bent and heels turned out completely for a very long time. Leg strength is essential in order to create a powerful stamp with the foot during the military marching scene.

    "When the giant army marches, the whole hall should vibrate," Pairoj said.

    Also, khon dancers should have a good sense of balance since they have to stand on another actor - whose costume alone can weigh up to 5 or 6kg - and their vision is limited by the small eye holes on the khon mask.

    "That's one reason why many people complain that khon performance has a very slow pace because there are many physical limitations and many of the movements are fixed," Pornrat said.

    During the two months of preparation for the show, all the cast had to be trained the same way, so their strength was more or less equal. This is because many of the performers had been working in professions that did not require much physical strength or movement.

    Organisers are trying to attract young people to come and see the show as well. Chumnong Sangvichien, chairman of the board of the Sala Chalermkrung Foundation, said that the organising committee are inviting schools to bring their students to the show.

    To make the ancient performance more appealing to a younger audience, as well as other people who might not be familiar with khon dance, the production will be reduced from a standard length of two to three hours to one hour and ten minutes.

    The story will be told concisely - replacing the long and slow recitation with moving digital subtitles.

    "We promise that this time, khon can be fun," Pairoj said.

    In the attempt to popularise and preserve the heritage of khon, the organisers hope that the show will spark a growing interest in the traditional art.

    The Sala Chalermkrung Foundation wants this production to be a catalyst for the beginning of a professional khon company in the future.

    The scholar believes that a regular or seasonal timetable of khon performances can be a draw for tourists.

    "Western tourists usually plan their holidays three to six months in advance. If we successfully set a certain regular schedule, they can easily decide to include khon in their programme," Chumnong said.

    His ultimate dream is to see khon performance as "a must see" tourist activity just like khabuki in Japan or opera in Vienna.

    "I want foreigners to think that if they haven't seen khon, they haven't truly arrived in Thailand," Chumnong said.

    In order to reach that goal, a standard of quality has to be set. Chumnong commented that with a new and attractive venue, the troupe will automatically try to produce good quality shows. And he sees a potential in Sala Chalermkrung, thanks to its origin and history.

    The theatre was built in 1933 with a nine million baht donation from King Rama VII. On the occasion of 150th anniversary of establishing Bangkok as the capital city, the King gave two presents to the people. The first gift was the Rama I Bridge.

    The other was the Sala Chalermkrung cinema, which was intended to be an entertainment centre for the people.

    The king also founded the Saha Cinema company that would lend money to film-makers to produce films especially for cinema.

    Sala Chalermkrung has been used for many purposes other than a cinema.

    It screened movies, held plays and concerts. Years ago, it was a hang-out for actors, actresses, film dubbers and people in the entertainment business.

    Because Sala Chalermkrung was a gift from the king, it is a royal theatre. Consequently, every show or performance held there has to maintain a certain degree of quality.

    So, Chumnong has hopes that young people will connect with khon performance and continue the tradition for years to come.

    "It would be a pity if we couldn't preserve the country's precious arts," he said.

    'Khon-Sala Chalermkrung' begins tomorrow and will continue throughout next year. Tickets are 1,200 and 1,000 baht. Discounts are available for students and members of Sala Chalermkrung. For more information, call 02-224-4499 or visit www.thaiticketmaster.com.

  2. #2
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    Spectacular Khon
    Published on December 09, 2005



    Abridged version of the masked dance to bring the curtain down as National Theatre closes for repairs

    There is no better way to bid a temporary farewell to a beloved theatre than a spectacular performance, and no better man for the job than one who has spent his life working in the dramatic arts.

    National Artist Seri Wangnaitham has done just that, and he will lead 150 artists to stage a historical Khon (mask dance) at 6pm tomorrow, titled “Ramayana Epic: the Incarnation of Rama”.

    The special show to mark the year-long closure of the theatre for renovations will feature the largest troop of performers the theatre has ever seen. Khon performances normally feature between 60 and 70 dancers, but in this case the quantity will in no way negate the quality, as the national artist has handpicked all of the performers himself.

    Die-hard fans of the theatre can expect to see leading actors such as Pakorn Pornpisut, Supachai Chansuwan and Wantanee Mungboon.

    To add to the unique appeal of the performance, Seri will also explore a different approach with the aim of attracting a new generation of audience. The detailed performance will therefore be written in a way that concludes the story within two hours, while still maintaining the authentic Khon flavour.

    Seri himself will take the audience through the introduction to the story and the main characters before the show starts. Call it an unorthodox move, albeit necessary for unfamiliar audiences, but this approach may well be the key to extending the life of Khon in Thailand.

    Having served the Thai public for 45 years, the National Theatre is considered to be the backbone of traditional Thai performing arts, but it has suffered of late by failing to attract a new generation of theatregoers.

    The building’s face-lift and the new approach to Khon are positive signs that the traditional Thai performance art is fighting to survive, despite the fast-changing lifestyles of Thai people.

    With production costs of over Bt200,000, the performance will offer a rare feast for faithful Khon fans and a more attractive prospect for first-time audiences.

    The national artist, who is a living symbol of the theatre, urged audiences to experience the memorable show and the theatre before the long hiatus. “Great traditional Khon performances are a bit hard to find these days. But our show gathers a whole host of talented, professional performers to stage a full-scale, extravagant drama. Besides, this is the last chance to catch a glimpse of the old theatre. So I really hope to attract a large audience”, said Seri.

    The play comprises four episodes: “Vishnu Defeats Nontuk”, “The Kidnapping of Sita”, “Hanuman Summons Monkey Armies”, and “The War Between Rama and Ravana”, Ravana being the 10-headed demons better known as Tossagun.

    The evening will also feature a Thai classical dance honouring His Majesty the King, as well as a singing performance from the owner of the Ketamarin Foundation, the organisers of this extravagant event.

    Based on Valmiki’s Ramayana, the show is nevertheless distinctly traditionally Thai in flavour. “Everything is being done in the old fashioned way, from the choreography to the exquisite costumes,” guaranteed Seri.

    The Khon masked drama may be one of the few surviving pieces of Thai heritage, but it is still at risk of extinction. The expenses for one performance alone are quite daunting. For example, a fully-fledged Rama or Ravana costume costs up to Bt50,000.

    The performers also have to devote themselves fully to their art. For this performance, each performer will rehearse the art of Khon for two hours daily, a fact that does not sit well with Seri who became a revered master of the art by practising for 12 hours a day.

    The sophisticated style and slow-pace of the performance might not be in fitting with the fast pace of modern life but Khon follows a strict, traditional pattern that cannot be changed at will. And it is for this reason that Seri, for this special performance alone, will adopt a change of pace that will hopefully appease even the younger generation. This means that it will take just two hours to journey through this immortal tale of good versus evil.

    “We are organising the show to keep this artistic tradition alive in Thai society and to inspire youngsters to be proud of their heritage”, said Dr Sudchit Duriyapraneet, chief adviser of the Ketamarin Foundation.

    The grand scale of the show is certainly apt considering the occasion - the temporary closure of the central wing, also known as the large auditorium. The renovation will take a year to complete. And with a total budget of some Bt200 million, many people, including Seri, expect a complete facelift - in a traditional Thai style.

    Seri speaks fondly about the theatre: “It really is one of a kind, especially its intricate patterning. There is no other place like this in the world.”

    Show time is at 6pm at the National Theatre. Tickets are available for Bt300, Bt500, Bt800 and Bt1,000 at www.thaiticketmaster.com. For information call (02) 262 3456.

    Veeraya Permpanich

    The Nation

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