A man’s journey from choreography and performing arts to cultural festivals has transformed right before our eyes
Sometimes a person’s professional paths can take several twists and turns like dance movements. Jitti Chompee or Oh, founder and choreographer of 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre and director of Unfolding Kafka Festival, has his career metamorphosed into a series of altered states, like his performances.
Jitti recalled, “At first I studied Chemical Technology Science at Chulalongkorn University. When I graduated at 20, being a good student and wanting to have a good job and a high salary, I continued my master in Chemical Engineering. However, I met David Shields and later William Morgan, both ballet masters, with whom I learned classical ballet. As truly excellent teachers, they didn’t only teach good dance techniques but also knew a lot about the history of dance, the background, and the causes and effects of movements. They really inspired me to dance.”
“Then I enrolled at the Jean M Wong School of Ballet in Hong Kong for a summer. Later I was introduced to contemporary dance by a masterful Professor Michael Diekamp, who offered me to study at the Palucca University of Dance in Dresden, Germany, for one year. He wanted me to receive the style of education that fits me. But because of my physical type and energetic personality, I decided to go to New York so I could learn about myself and my possibilities. I first auditioned at the Ailey School where I studied for two years.”
Jitti continues, “Afterwards I went to Paris to be exposed to other contemporary dance styles and took many opportunities to see good performances and good artists. At first, I just wanted to be a freelance dancer and had more chances to do different projects over there. But it wasn’t easy so I decided to return home. Coincidentally, I met Sarawanee Tanatanit, formerly with American Ballet Theatre, with whom I danced in a duet for a celebration. Then in 2007, we started to choreograph a modern dance piece “Remember…What You Have Done in 24 Hours?” at Patravadi Theatre. It was quite successful. In 2009, I choreographed an opera production ‘Carmen’ for Alliance Française Bangkok. Finally, it made me think that choreography is another challenge for me and I really want to continue my own work. So in 2010 I developed and created a company.”
Jitti states, “18 Monkeys Dance Theatre was suggested by Pawit Mahasarinand, then a professor of Dramatic Arts at Chulalongkorn University and a former director of Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre to establish a dance company in Thailand. The first 18 Monkeys company’s production premiered at Patravadi Theatre. Then in 2011 it went on tour to George Town Festival in Penang, Malaysia, and in 2016, Daniel ‘Pipi’ Piazzolla, grandson of Astor Piazzolla, the famous tango music composer, invited my company to perform with his ensemble at Teatro San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and also in Columbia and Mexico.
“I was invited to participate in many international dance festivals such as Festival Tanztendenzen 2014 in Greifswald, Germany, and CaDance Festival 2017 in The Hague, the Netherlands. In 2013, Institut Français de Fès awarded me the residency artist programme in Fez, Morocco, where I premiered ‘Tightrope Walker’ and again at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris 2014, supported by the French Embassy Thailand and Institut Français. In 2015, I was the guest choreographer for ‘Les Pêcheurs de Perles’ by the Nederlandse Reisopera.”
Jitti muses, “I get inspirations from literature, cinema, travel, watching performances and working with diverse styles of dancers. I am driven by the theatrical use of traditional Khōn masks in combination with physical and gestural movements, literature interpretation and interactions among various media of arts. I reinterpret the narrative themes and cultural identity of Thai mythology into my dance vocabulary. In my development process, I love to create on a basis of freedom by eliminating the limitations between the comfort zone of the dancers and myself. My choreography explores the possibilities of human transformation. The notion of animalism and the extension of the dancers’ physicality are prominent in my work through distorted images and mismatched bodies similar to Picasso’s Cubism.
“Creating each piece takes a long time. I don’t force them out but let them evolve more and more. I develop my works through photography and scenography. The whole scene from photos is transformed into a live performance. I also prefer using various sites to regular theatres with a proscenium. Most theatres here are either too large or too small. This shows how I understand architecture and landscape and adapt these sites and spaces in the best possible way. My dedicated audience also expects to observe these pieces at different venues. So each piece when performed becomes site-specific and it saves production costs. Moreover, the audience is engaged and encouraged to diversify their perceptions of arts and their background differently.”
Jitti explains, “My company is almost 10 years old so the more I learn and have international experiences, the more I become convinced that my works and festival have to be relevant to our contemporary reality. Even though sometimes it’s hard to comprehend my interpretations, dark humour and animal characters, the surrealistic world in my performances leave more room to create and interpret. These stories are often open without a clear ending which perfectly fit into ideas behind abstract and conceptual art. And I always believe that when art is accessible and relevant, it can contribute to gradually change our society by questioning our understanding of the past, but also by revealing a raw vision of the essence of humanity and by connecting people to their contemporary reality.”
“The piece I’m most proud of is ‘Red Peter’ which evolved through several scenography. There’s no fakes because the actions are real. The dancers performed without music and in the soil with dirt and all but they created fantastic visuals. One of the performers, Benjamin Tardif, who was trained in Khōn dance drama and had no contemporary dance background at all, achieved a high level of performance in this. It was firstly created in The Hague, the Netherlands, under the support of the Kylián Foundation, founded by Jiří Kylián, a world-renowned Czech dancer and choreographer. The premiere went successfully and I’m grateful and honoured to receive this grant.
“Another piece that I love is ‘Party Animal’ because it’s a genuine dance with exceptional and talented young dancers. We used very simple and minimal music. The performers had to apply rhythm to their timing and space to be very precise—neither more nor less. There’s no improvisation. The movements build up to the last moment so they will give better impressions. Our rehearsals are like experiments that I collect the data and choose the best results which are the best moments. So each piece evolves through the process of thinking, without preparation. My operative mode becomes automatic and performances happen organically like drawing spontaneously. It’s now not later. My problem with working is that I don’t want to be uninterested. I get bored if it’s not challenging enough. I will only release my works when it flows, not stuck. With choreography and directing the festival, I have achieved what I have attempted to give Thailand, the best performing art stages. I have never struggled much except that I may quit doing this if I get bored or find other things to challenge myself more.”
“…the key is to be your true self, not a copy of someone else…”
Jitti has conceived and directed the Unfolding Kafka Festival, a biennial event of visual and performing arts since 2015. He enthuses, “The core concept of the festival derives from ideas of Franz Kafka’s essays on fusions of things. For me, Kafka is an archetype of many people in our society, who secretly wish to be an artist and would have the potential, but they would rather have more traditional lives because of several factors and preconceived ideas. It’s such a pity! Kafka mainly worked as a lawyer for an insurance company in Prague but indeed wrote many stories. I don’t believe in his choice of profession. Although he lived this ‘double life,’ he found his own unique style and became a genius artist. As an artist myself, either in the local or international context, the key is to be your true self, not a copy of someone else.
“…when quality prevails, only the good works will survive.”
“In 2015 we presented the concept of folding and unfolding human bodies and materials. In 2017, the concept was about identity and gender. This year’s theme is ‘Kafka Zoo’ because Kafka used many animal species as characters and symbols, like one big zoo. We want to give the audience new perspectives of looking at animals and being looked at. For our third instalment, I visited many festivals and was speechlessly inspired by many artists. I want to share them with the local audience so they can watch and experience the best pieces too. We have non-traditional circus performers from France. ‘Des Gestes Blancs’ is about shifting relationships between a father and his son, which reflects the ones of Kafka and his father’s. It took me two years to select to give the whole story a good balance. When we provide works of high quality, the audience appreciates them. This proves that when quality prevails, only the good works will survive.”
Jitti concludes, “Education is of the essence. It’s my dream to establish a conservatoire for traditional, classical and modern dance in both eastern and western styles. This institution will nurture and improve talents and opportunities to create good dancers and eventually stars. If we develop to a higher standard, we can convincingly have a national dance company.
“I also want to focus on the history of our traditional performing arts. I’m interested in Khōn masks for their shapes, sizes, periods, genders of dancers, physical factors such as the skull sizes and performers’ diet. Through research, they tell stories of colours, material details, styles of dances, the evolution of figures and court protocols. This knowledge from history will help us understand our origins and roots for the future generation.”