Thai to celebrate

Ahead of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Thailand and Israel next year, the foreign embassy is offering a taste of traditional culture

thai woman 521 (photo credit: courtsey)
thai woman 521
(photo credit: courtsey)
Most Israelis who have spent some time in Thailand would probably associate the Southeast Asian country with lazing around on beaches on the southern islands that seem to have come straight out of a glossy tourist agency brochure. The more adventurous might recall trekking up north betwixt rolling hills and colorfully attired members of the local tribes. Of course, the memory of the horrific tsunami that devastated parts of the south in 2004 is also a painful reference point, but Jukr Boon-Long would like us to consider the healthier and more deep-rooted aspects of what his country has to offer.
Boon-Long is the Thai ambassador to Israel and, as such, has his hand firmly on the rudder of events lined up to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Thailand and Israel. The landmark date does not actually take place until 2014 – the countries officially recognized each other in June 1954 – but three dance shows, which will take place at Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv on February 27 and at Jerusalem’s Gerard Behar Center on February 28, are the curtain raiser on a festival of Thai arts-oriented items designed to make Israeli audiences more aware of Thai history and culture.
“We are trying to promote all different aspects of Thai culture,” explains Boon-Long, “not just dance.
There will be a puppet show, movies and also a performance of Thai classical music too.”
The production, with a lineup of 16 dancers and nine musicians, is based on the Khon classical dance discipline, which combines dancing and acting in a highly dramatic manner. Khon was originally exclusively performed as a means of entertaining members of the Thai royal families over the centuries, by men in masks accompanied by narrators and a traditional piphat ensemble featuring wind and percussion instruments. The contemporary Khon format incorporates female performers in female roles, which were originally played by men.
The entertainment lined up for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv promises eye-catching offerings, with the members of the troupe donning elaborate masks and elaborate headdresses. The former indicate the characters’ personalities and titles, such as simians, demons or garudas – mythical birdlike creatures. The performers also sport elongated fingernails and carry bunches of red flowers.
But it is not only the polychromic getups that are likely to keep audience members riveted to their seats.
There is plenty of action to be had in performances of Khon dance, as the genre feeds off traditional Thai sword and baton fighting, called krabi krabong – although there will be no Chuck Norris-like shenanigans, as Khon adopts a more gentle approach to portraying the storyline.
As fun as the final product may appear to the public, an immense amount of training and preparation goes into putting on traditional Thai dance performances.
The dancers’ costumes are highly elaborate affairs, made of silk and other fine fabrics, and adjusting and donning the outfits can take quite a while. The performers have to be not only well-disciplined and agile, they also have to have a particularly robust physique, as the costumes often weigh 10 kilograms or more.
Boon-Long is keen for us to get a better handle on the historical and cultural backdrop to his country’s ethos and not just the fun stuff that young backpackers get into on their post-army service jaunts to the Far East. “I want the Israelis to enjoy more of the Thai culture because many of them experience what happens down south in places like Phuket and Samui Island, you know, on the beach and the full-moon parties and so on,” says the ambassador. “I want to bring Thai classical culture here, for them to have a chance to experience that too.”
Boon-Long adds that what we will see in next week’s shows is not just a tourist-oriented product designed to convey an idealized and sanitized image of his country. “People in Thailand are actually connected to the national cultural roots. We grow up with this, with this kind of performance,” he explains. “We have this in villages and small towns, but what is special about the performances in Israel is that the artistic director is the same person who sets up Khon performances in Thailand, which are under the patronage of Her Royal Majesty the Queen of Thailand.”
Her Majesty’s championing of Thai culture, says Boon-Long, makes a point to her subjects. “The queen wanted to help preserve Khon, and to make sure it is still with us for many years to come,” continues the ambassador. “Khon is taught at schools and is used in school plays and such like. The queen wants to make sure that the younger generation, who wouldn’t have a chance to experience this, can appreciate this and to learn about it and to see what it is like. This is also why I wanted to bring it to Israel, to show people here what it is like.”
The choreographer of the production is Anucha Thirakanont, who has overseen similar productions all over the world.
Quite a few young Israelis have returned from their travels to India with instrumental and other skills, and Boon-Long says he is looking to help impart some of his own country’s artistic skills and traditions too. “I would like to bring musicians here from Thailand, and lecturers, to teach Thai classical music here in Israel.”
Naturally, he is also hoping that next week’s shows, and the other cultural events lined up to mark the diamond anniversary of the bilateral ties will enhance local interest in his country. “We would want to introduce a different picture of the Thai culture to the Israeli public, and we would like to have more Israelis who have been to Thailand when they were young, after their military service, to go back to Thailand with their families, so we want to promote Thailand as a family destination as well.”
Next week’s shows are free, with two performances at Habimah Theater at 5:30 and 8 p.m. on February 27 and at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem on February 28 at 8:30 p.m. To reserve tickets call 072-222-2515 (Tel Aviv) or (02) 625-1139 (Jerusalem).