Rethinking the Dialectic of Life and Death: The 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre’s Second Interpretation of the Mozart Requiem

Rethinking the Dialectic of Life and Death:

The 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre’s Second Interpretation of the Mozart Requiem

 

Chetana Nagavajara

 

The performance on 4 December 2018 at the Rose Hotel on Surawong Road was “The 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre’s” second attempt at interpreting Mozart’s Requiem choreographically after its successful presentation at the Siam Society in January this year. The Pro Musica Quartet, whose composition had changed a little, also provided a strong musical back-up for this second performance. Its playing this time shifted more towards emphasizing the contrapuntal nature of the work, reflecting Mozart’s late discovery of Bach. And it was this contrapuntal bias of the music that must have given the choreographer the opportunity to “think in opposites” and, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to endow his second presentation with an even more pronounced philosophical slant.

The quotation from Mozart’s letter to his father from April 1787 again served as a clue to what the choreographer might have had in mind. Death, to Mozart, was not something threatening, but in a deeply personal manner, the composer even found it “soothing and comforting”. Here we have a dialectical thinking that was to guide the performers: this was not to be an expression of sadness, nor of joy. And they stopped short of embracing Johannes Brahms’s innovation in composing a requiem for the living! Consequently, they had to find the middle path between the two poles: the new interpretation was marked by an unmistakable sobriety – no exhibitionistic choreographic virtuosity was displayed. The movements tended to be more reflective and induced the public to reflect along with the performers.

By a stroke of luck, Jitti Chompee had found a new venue to serve his process of rethinking. The quadrangle of the Rose Hotel, surrounded by multi-storey rows of guest rooms on four sides, closed in by a roof top, has both spaciousness and height that lent themselves to innovative choreography. In a way, it is a “huis clos” (no exit), shut in from all sides, with no escape route, almost a Sartrian notion of hell, but that space with its reminiscence of an Oxbridge quadrangle has ample associations  with creative thinking and cultural sophistication. The choreographer knew how to make the best of it.

The first dancer entered the space wearing a diver’s suit, performing movements as if he were travelling over a vast expanse of water. The Buddhist in me reacted immediately to the idea of human life caught in the immeasurable vastness of Samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth that could only be resolved by Nirvana. How do human beings fill that span of life, before death catches up with them? Of course, they are sometimes fired by aspirations, and hence they rise. One dancer climbed up the steps of a fire escape to the top floor, only to descend again to the “earthly” level. An another time, colleagues (plus the choreographer himself) wrapped up the entire body of a dancer with silver foil, an amended version of the Sang-Thong folk tale (well known in its dramatic form), the amendment being silver in instead of gold, a concession to the general tenor of the new interpretation. The beautifying process — unlike in the Sang-Thong tale in which the hero dips himself into a golden pond — was done by fellow human beings, and soon enough the silvery metamorphosis was demolished by that very same person, who was all too conscious of the frailty, artificiality and impermanence of the adornment. At the human level, we can awaken by ourselves to the impermanence of all things. As I said before, the middle path and the sobriety of conduct observed in this interpretation could make life tolerable.

            And when the final moment came, it did not come with a big bang. Those big chords at the end of the Requiem were weighty, musically, but not ponderous, philosophically. The audience could not overlook the fact that after the music had stopped and the lights over the music stands were switched off, the choreographic action went on. Again the dancer, who was slowly groping his way towards one corner of the quadrangle as if trying to find an exit, was honoured with the last rite of “holy” water, coming down in abundance from a hose, a deliberate travesty of the Thai religious rite of bathing a hand of the deceased before saying the final good-bye to him and make him rest in a coffin! The way this was done at this performance was neither funny nor solemn. Many Farang members of the audience might not have got the message, but this was probably addressed to the Thai members only!

            All in all, it was a thought-provoking performance. Those who had come, expecting acrobatic virtuosity that characterizes the 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre, may have been disappointed. The choice of Mozart to help stage a dialogue between life and death was the right one, and the decision to have the Mozart letter vocally delivered first in English, then in the original German, by two dancers respectively, added weight to the message. With a string quartet playing on the same space as that danced upon by the dancers, the performance gained much in authenticity and credibility in the sense that starting from music via choreography, one arrives at a consciousness of man’s ability to invest life with meaning and to arrive at that singular Mozartian attitude towards death. There remains only a short step to arrive at Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. I am here speaking with Jitti Chompee.

One little observation: the night of 4 December was extremely hot, and the closed-in quadrangle has no ventilation facilities of any kind: so it was hellishly hot for the dancers, the musicians and the audience alike. My advice for future performances: Don’t ever rely on the traditional belief in the demarcation of the seasons in Thailand, or anywhere in the world. We Thai used to don our winter clothing when going to the “Constitutional Fair” on 10 December. That was decades ago! Do urge all our governments to sign and ratify the Paris Agreement soonest, and I am not only speaking to my American friends

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