A reason to dance

Chen Wu-kang says his work with Thai dancer Pichet Kluchun over the past two years has given him a new sense of purpose

By Diane Baker  /  Staff reporter

Thu, May 10, 2018 - Page 14

Taiwanese dancer/choreographer Chen Wu-kang (陳武康) likes mixing things up and finding new challenges. A partnership with Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun, who has been challenging his nation’s idea of dance for at least 15 years, would seem like a natural fit.

The two men, who will be performing their new production, Behalf (半身相) at the Cloud Gate Theater for three shows starting on May 25, are now in Kinosaki Onsen, Japan, where they are finishing up a two-week residency at the Kinosaki International Arts Center.

I caught up with Chen yesterday for a telephone interview. He said the opportunity to work with Pichet came a good time in his life, but there has never been anything sure about their collaboration.

Chen, who worked with Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech in New York City for many years and cofounded Taiwan’s first all-male dance collective, Horse (驫舞劇場), said a six-month Asian Cultural Council (ACC) residency in New York City that he was awarded in 2013 had left him with many questions, including whether he should continue dancing or even choreographing.

Those questions were reinforced by friend Bulareyaung Pagarlava’s announcement in 2014 that he would be giving up his work in Taipei — for Cloud Gate 2 (雲門 2) and others — to “go home” to Taitung County to reconnect with his Paiwan community and found a dance company there.

“That made me question what my ‘home’ was, what my ‘tradition’ was,” Chen said.

So his meeting with Pichet toward the end of 2015 came at a fortuitous time, he said, although it was not the first time they had met.

They had performed the same weekend in Novel Hall’s 2007 dance series “Men Dancing” in Taipei. Chen was dancing in old friend Cheng Tsung-lung’s (鄭宗龍) — now Cloud Gate 2 artistic director — award-winning duet Tete Bech and Pichet was performing his I am a demon solo, an exploration of one of the four character types in the traditional Thai masked dance theater known as Khon.

“But he didn’t remember me,” Chen said. “In 2015, the Ministry of Culture invited him to give a talk at ‘BeiDa [Taipei National University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學)] and suggested he meet with some local artists. It gave him a list of contacts and he picked three, including myself and Tsung-lung,” Chen said.

Pitchet visited Horse’s studio in New Taipei City’s Banciao District (板橋) and they talked for about an hour, Chen said, adding that he spent most of the time asking Pichet questions.

“Being able to talk about ‘tradition’ with Pichet was thought-provoking,” he said.

Though from very different countries and traditions — Pichet started studying Khon dance when he was 16, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Thai classical dance from Chulalongkorn University, while Chen started taking dance classes at 12, studied ballet and modern, and earned a degree from National Taiwan University of Arts — they both founded their own companies in 2004 — and both have credited their ACC residencies in New York as major influences.

The two men obviously hit it off. Pichet returned to Taiwan in 2016 for three weeks, where he and Chen gave workshops at Horse’s studio and then Bulareyaung’s studio in Taitung. Chen then went to Bangkok, where he did a piece for Pichet’s dancers.

Pichet was already booked to bring his company to the Cloud Gate Theater last summer, to perform his Dancing With Death, when the theater asked if he and Chen could do a presentation together.

“We thought this might be interesting. We didn’t know if it would work out, but that’s how we ended up in Japan now with our team,” Chen said.

The two men have changed the way they usually work for Behalf.

“We decided to have a dramaturge, for the first time ever [Tang Fu-kuen (鄧富權)] and he suggested a legendary Japanese lighting designer [Takayuki Fujimoto, also known as Kinsei]. The team helps us concentrate, gives lots of feedback; it’s been very productive.”

Tang was the one who came up with the English title for the program.

“It is two men, working on behalf of themselves and others, for me, Taiwanese culture, for him, Thai. The project was originally called Body Tradition, but nobody really liked it. It took a while to come with Behalf,” he said.

“I didn’t think I had a tradition until I started working with him,” Chen said of Pichet.

“In Thailand he is very radical ... taking off the [khon] mask, performing nude, building his own theater. I call him their “Mr Lin [Hwai-min (林懷民)],” Chen said. “Traditional Thai dance was for kings and gods, but once that connection was lost, people don’t see the need or relevance of traditional Thai dance ... he is trying to evolve dance there ... chop it up, study it and change it.”

While the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company — like Lin’s Cloud Gate Dance Company (雲門) — was the first professional dance troupe in its nation to give its dancers full-time jobs, Pichet has not been embraced by Thais the way Lin and his company have been by Taiwanese.

Behalf is still evolving, Chen said.

“The show is definitely more than an hour, less than 90 minutes, and there will be different musicians, one on Friday and Sunday and a different one on Saturday.”

“Originally we wanted to do three different musicians, a different one for each day, but we were not bold enough, it was too scary,” he said.

Chen said working with Pichet has helped him find a new reason to dance, to choreograph, to organize.

“How to make the whole island dance, that’s my mission now. Personally, I am making myself better — soaking in taichi, but not like Cloud Gate does, putting myself into tango to understand tango partnering — I want to understand different types of dance movement,” he said.

“Dance is contagious. It is not just about for style, it’s for everyone,” he said.