Across the nation, from its furthest borders to its heart in Bangkok, modernity seems to be everywhere, with the latest gadgets and trends spreading as fast as a forest fire. But despite all this, ancient Siamese culture lives on, and its traditions are alive and well. One of the nation’s best-known, and oldest of arts, Thai dancing, is still highly popular. Even if you don’t see a performance, you may well be familiar with its most famous symbol – the Khon mask. Though familiar to many, it’s still very mysterious. Brightly coloured, and elaborate down to the last detail, it has significance for every Thai person; it’s a direct link to their heritage and the myths that sprung into being even before the nation was formed.
Khon masks come in various forms, and are used in classical Thai dance along with equally elaborate clothing and ornamentation to denote the mythical characters on stage. There are demons, monkeys, royal figures, soldiers and a whole cast of epic characters. Even if you’re fluent in Thai, it’d be hard to know what was going on without the masks. Paradoxically, though they hide the dancer, they nail down the character; these are not masks to disguise, but to identify. They’re as much part of the dance as the dancing itself. The combination of clothing, mask and ornamentation acts as a sort of artistic barcode that safely lets the audience know who’s on stage.
Thai dancing provides an intricate mix of poetry, epic drama, complicated music, along with highly ritualized choreography, to produce a unified art form that’s hard to find anywhere else outside Thailand and its neighbouring regions. The dance tends portrays the Ramakhien, which has as its origins the Ramayana epic from India, but which reflects the themes and topics at the heart of ancient Siamese culture.
The masks are still worn today; new ones are constantly being made and the dance, quite literally, goes on. The age-old themes still mesmerize, and children still love to learn the enigmatic, ancient choreography. Go to the children’s dance school at the side of Big C supermarket and you’ll find tiny children intensely copying dance routines that are hundreds of years old. Look at the far wall, and you’ll see, up on high and in pride of place, a Khon mask, brightly downlit.
Classical Thai dancing wasn’t always so accessible; until the 20th century, it was only permitted to be performed in the Royal Court, but it’s become open to everyone now and performances can be given freely. It’s not to be confused with folk dancing, which calls for fewer elaborate costumes and is a lot more informal in every way possible. A few folk dances, however, are a mix of both classical and folk, and sit on the choreographical fence. But for the most part, it’s easy to recognize what you’re watching.
When you are on holiday you’ll find some hotels put on Thai dance demonstrations featuring Classical Thai dance with dancers wearing headdresses and glittering jewellery. It may give you the impetus to go to the mainland or to a big city to see a larger show.
Classical Thai dancing goes back to the 15th century, when various kingdoms ruled a region that included not just today’s Thailand, but also Cambodia and Laos as well. Back then there were relatively few people who could read or write, so dance also served an educational purpose, as a way to pass down folk stories and religious epics through the generations. No theatre comparable to today’s existed, and dance stepped in to become the favourite form of drama. There was folk dancing for the majority of the people, while classical dance was for the elite, beyond the grasp of most people. The clothing alone was prohibitively expensive and classical dancers were few and far between; they were as rare and coveted as today’s movie stars.
There are three major forms of classical Thai dancing, along with a southern dance. The brief guide that follows will hopefully inspire you to seek out a performance. All are very watchable and mesmerizing in their gracefulness.
These days, when you attend a show you’re likely to be surprised by the sheer numbers of people involved if you’re watching a Kohn performance. Historically, it always required a large cast. This is the apex of classical dancing; along with the numerous dancers themselves, the production relies on narrators, mask-makers, embroiderers, makeup artists and other support services.
If you’re watching a very traditional performance you’ll find that only male dancers wear masks. While they dance, a chorus just off-stage narrates the drama while the mythical cast of demons, monkeys, nymphs and gods mixes with humans, an integral part of the story.
In Lakhon the dancers wear no masks, and they’re most often female. It’s more of a group dance than one where the performers are acting out the dramas of various individuals. The stories are again very often drawn from the Ramakhien, though may also feature traditional folk tales that are re-enacted to the delight of the onlookers.
This mix of classical and folk dancing is very often seen performed as it requires a minimal number of dancers and is relatively easy to choreograph. It remains, however, very regal in its feel. One of the best-loved of the fawn dances is simply called, ‘Fawn Leb’ or fingernail dance, named for the incredible long gold fingernail extensions worn. Though simpler, fawn dances still involve fairly elaborate clothing and are a heritage of the former royal courts of Siam. You’ll also come across the butterfly, candle and scarf dances – all part of the tradition of fawn dancing.
A southern Thai dance, also seen in the north of Malaysia, is also included in the canon of classical Thai dance. This is Manohra, a dance that re-enacts the love story between a prince and Kinnari Manohra, a mythic creature that’s half-woman and half-bird. After they marry, evil courtiers hatch a scheme that ends with the death of Manohra, leaving the prince devastated.
A huge amount of effort has been made to keep the classical Thai dancing authentic and alive; it presents the Thai sense of identity, and though the figures portrayed have so much to do with an era that’s long gone, the dramas they represent still engage the psyche on a deep level. Year round, the dances still take place in every part of the country, watched by eager and appreciative audiences. If you can take the chance to see a traditional Thai dance; you’ll literally be stepping back hundreds of years and witnessing the bright and colourful entertainment of the Royal Courts.