A Thai classical dancer embraces modern choreography while maintaining his artistic roots. Anucha Sumaman dances with the National Theatre, but also with contemporary companies.
When performing Thai classical dance, Anucha Sumaman’s fingers curl back away from the palm at an impossible angle, with an arm that is extended, elbow bent slightly backwards in a way that is thoroughly unnatural. His knees are bent as well, stance open and back erect. He moves across the stage without seeming to move at all, the motion completely isolated from his torso. The power of his performance is derived from this erect bearing. Even though he often performs wearing a mask that covers his face, Anucha manages to convey a depth of feeling that is forceful.
Thai classical dance is known for its gentle grace and elegance of line, but Anucha manages to bring a power to it that is unexpected. In person, he is taller than the average Thai man. He carries with him a muscular energy that suggests a strong stage presence, even when offstage. Some of it is his bearing, but much of it seems to come also from an inner self assurance.
Anucha’s voice, however, is quiet, rather gentle and subdued. Perhaps he is being polite as Thais strive to be but it is hard to imagine that he would ever have the tantrums of a prima donna. ‘I usually dance the role of a yakasa,’ he says, referring to the demon giants one usually sees depicted as statues guarding temple doors. It is a role he was trained for from an early age after it was clear that he would grow to be tall and strong. Perhaps that is where the inner strength comes from or, conversely, how Anucha was chosen for this role.
In Thai classical dance, there are but a handful of roles, and a dancer is chosen from a young age to be trained specifically to dance that role. The training begins early. For Anucha, he started at the age of four. His parents indulged him in a passion instilled by his grandmother who would take him to see classical performances. Anucha would come home and imitate what he had seen on stage. ‘All I’ve ever wanted was to perform,’ he reveals, ‘so I started training at a provincial school before coming to study at the Fine Arts Institute.’
Anucha is now one of the lead dancers at the National Theatre. He has danced with the company for about 10 years now, having been through a gruelling regime each day as a youth to hone his talent. ‘There are actually many schools throughout the country that teach Thai classical dance,’ he says. ‘There is a great deal of interest that is fostered by the Fine Arts Department through provincial tours and through television performances. People want to see this form of dance and our shows are usually sold out.’
So there isn’t any danger of this traditional art form’s dying out in the age of music videos? When cabaret, ballet, hip-hop and other western forms of dance seem more easily accessible, does Thai classical dance stand a chance?
‘Dance companies are having trouble everywhere.’ Anucha answers. ‘Being a dancer is definitely a labour of love. You have to have the passion for it. For a company to survive, it is a matter of funding and, at least with Thai classical dance, there is government support for the preservation of the art form.’ Indeed, Anucha is a civil servant, employed by the Fine Arts Department. Not only did he have to undergo the training to become a dancer, he had to study to pass his civil service exams. So the life of a Thai classical dancer can actually be a very good one, with a steady income and government employment benefits.
The training, however, is demanding. ‘All dance is unnatural,’ Anucha declares, ‘whether it is Thai classical dance, ballet or hip-hop. We are asking our bodies to bend and move in ways that a body doesn’t normally bend or move.’ The aforementioned angle of the fingers and the backward bend of the elbow is only the start of it. ‘From the beginning, we are made to stand with our backs against a wall to learn how to keep ourselves straight while are legs are bent and our hips are open. When we are young, instructors will push our legs apart to stretch us out. Everyone ends up crying out from the pain when this is going on, but this is necessary so that we can eventually take the stance and maintain the proper form.’
Are there a lot of injuries? It would seem from Anucha’s description that the physically gruelling training would result in a fair share of problems. ‘I have had no major injuries,’ he tells us. ‘We have to be careful, however, because later in a Thai classical dancer’s career, the knees become an issue. We are forever holding ourselves up while are knees are bent. That puts a lot of pressure on the joint.’
‘Classical Thai dance is different from ballet in that everything in ballet is about holding the stomach in while for us it is about arching our backs,’ Anucha demonstrates with a graceful extension of the arm. In ballet, there is no tension in the hand and the palm is turned downward. In Thai classical dance, however, the arm is rigid and the palm faces outward, fingers bent back, placing focus on the hand itself. The means of expression are totally different.
‘If I had only been a bit younger,’ Anucha continues (he is all of 30), ‘I would probably have been trained in western forms of dance as well. Dancers who are only five years younger than I am are getting access to many more forms of dance training.’ It is now normal to take classes as a Thai classical dancer as well as to study ballet, jazz, modern dance and more.
A classical training hasn’t prevented Anucha from exploring other forms of dance, however. He regularly collaborates with choreographer Jitti Chompee, whose company 18 Monkeys recently staged A Love Song, a contemporary ballet in three acts, inspired by the work of Jean Genet. The performances took place in November at PTwarehouse to benefit the victims of last year’s flooding, using P.Tendercool’s space by the river as a performance space.
‘I have a great deal of respect for Jitti,’ Anucha says. ‘He finds ways to keep the company going and to continue performing.’ In the present economic climate, it is difficult to find the funding and support needed for a contemporary dance company. Most of the dancers need to have other jobs in order to support themselves.
Anucha feels particularly fortunate that he works for the Fine Arts Department. There has been criticism, however, that there should be more government funding for new companies and that the Fine Arts Department should commission modern choreography. Anucha responds to this diplomatically. ‘The role of the Fine Arts Department,’ he says, ‘is to preserve the traditions. It is up to other companies to innovate and to incorporate classical dance in new choreography, much like Jitti’s work.’
Anucha’s dream is to be a director of his own company, with a theatre that would feature both classical and modern forms of dance. ‘I would love to stage performances of the old classics and to have new choreography as well. I think that classical dance in its strictly traditional form should be preserved but I also think that new choreography should incorporate a variety of dance forms.’
One can’t help but wish Anucha well in his career. One hopes that he can keep dancing — and that his knees hold out — to see his dream come true.
05/01/2012 - 10:10