I’m Not an Artist, I Just Play One on TV

Last month in Chiang Mai, I had some friends, Ichi and Magic, come visit from down south. We threw a party. With art and performances and stuff. Lots of people came. It was cool.

That’s me making a long story short. Now, here’s the long version…

Art & Performance Party at Baan Jing Jung

I met Ichi in 2010, when I was first living in Chiang Mai. He was one of the friends in our “Chiang Mai Vortex,” as we called it. A bunch of them were living at Baan Jing Jung, an artsy guesthouse just outside the old city. We were all creative types—artists, musicians, dancers, acrobats, writers, performers—who hailed from Thailand, USA, Canada, Kenya, Germany, Australia, and Ireland. Somehow, we all found each other in Chiang Mai and quickly became a hodge-podge family of sorts.

Ichi, an artist, designer, and DJ from Germany, is one of the few from our vortex still in Thailand a year later, though he is now based on Ko Phi Phi, an island on the Andaman coast. In January, he arrived in Chiang Mai with his friend Matinee AKA Magic, a beautiful Thai dancer who incorporates magic tricks into her dance performances. They were staying at the old haunt, Baan Jing Jung.

Co-host and magic dancer, Matinee Imchum

Ichi suggested we do “another one of those parties” at Baan Jing Jung while he and Magic were in town. Last year, we had collectively thrown a performance party at Baan Jing Jung that came together quite magically and blew all of us who were involved away. As they did not have very long in town, we decided to have the party six days later. I started inviting artists and performers to participate and, surprisingly, almost everybody I asked said yes.

Six days later, we had done everything we could have done in the time allowed. Ichi had designed a poster and flyer, I had been promoting like crazy online, and Magic had been networking around town. I was quite surprised that over fifty people had said they were coming on Facebook and I wondered how many of those would actually show up.

Nicholas Wiszynski

Nobody was prepared for the numbers that ended up coming. I was hoping for forty or fifty at best but well over a hundred people came. The place was so jam-packed with people that some late arrivers were unable to make it further than the garden path.

Chiang Mai, it seems, is thirsty for art and performance.

The evening started with Nicholas Wiszynski and a magic show that had everyone mesmerized and enthralled. Nick frequently had us in stitches too. A real professional. Then our English friends Shelley Halstead and Neville Powis followed with some hilarious improvised physical theatre.

Saran Suwannachot performing Fon Jerng

Suran Suwannachot, a local painter and musician, was next with a performance of a Lanna martial art called Fon Jerng. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries in northern Thailand, the Kingdom of Lanna reigned, which had its own distinctive language and culture. Chiang Mai was the kingdom’s capital and the people here are still very proud of their Lanna heritage.

Mostly when you see Lanna performances, they are of women dancing. It is rare to see men perform. Some of our Thai guests told me afterwards they had never seen or even heard of Fon Jerng before, so it was a real revelation to all of us gathered there. Many told me afterwards this had been their favorite performance of the evening.

The flying Kimberly Grace

Next, we had some drumming and storytelling by Paul Monson, who directs the newly formed Chiang Mai Playback Theater, an improvisational theater group in which audience members recount personal stories that are then “played back” for them by actors. The group were having their inaugural performance the following week, so adding another performance at such short notice would have scattered their energies too much, but Paul kindly stepped up to perform for us anyway.

Supreeda Wongsansee dancing Flamenco

Lorenzo Becchi from Italy, Kimberly Grace from Canada, and Daniel Anner from Belgium followed with a breathtaking acrobatic partner yoga performance.

Act I ended with Supreeda Wongsansee, who is possibly the only woman from Thailand who dances Flamenco. Her stunning performance was way too short as far as I was concerned, but that’s the way it was.

Act II, which featured a few short dance performances, was to take place inside the guesthouse. With the number of people in attendance, it wasn’t clear how we were going to fit everyone. We decided to have a leisurely intermission in the hopes that some people would leave before we had to herd everyone inside.

Contemporary dance by Komsun (Max) TimaryormThe available space in the guesthouse was somewhat challenging to work with. We had one big L-shaped room that had a staircase in the main corner. The smaller rectangular space in front we had designated as the performance space, so we asked everyone to crowd in together and sit behind on the floor and up along the staircase.

Komsun (Max) Timaryorm was first up with an impressive contemporary dance performance. Then Matinee (Magic) Imchum did a hot magic dance, followed by me and Edward Tio with two improvised Argentine Tangos, the second of which I performed blindfolded! I like to show off sometimes.

In the garden, two of my Thai artist friends exhibited their work. Orpan (Tikky) Sompim had some pastels and was drawing portraits of party guests all night. Sep Ilan (Pilan) brought fabulous new ink drawings he created just for our event and showed them with some matching dolls he had made.

Sep Ilan (Pilan) and his “Staying Alive” exhibit

Last, but not least, Meela Fenderhardt had a few old poems of hers hidden in various spots along the garden path. The lighting was not so good there, so I wasn’t sure if anybody actually saw any of it until just the other day when one friend mentioned how much she loved the poetry and that it had been one of her favorite contributions to the party. I’m guessing she figured out who had written it…

By all accounts, the evening was a major success and I was very happy to hear so much generous feedback from so many people. A common reflection on the event was that it had been “inspiring” and everyone wanted to know when the next one was going to be. While I remained coy in response to these enquiries, I had already decided that night I would try to do one for my birthday six weeks later. It sounded like a great way to usher in a new year.

Saran Suwannachot

So, here we are on the 25th. It’s my birthday. I’m throwing a party. A big-assed party. With art and performances and stuff. Lots and lots of people are going to come. It will be cool.

Thank you to Mark Meurs for the photos (including effects) and Noriko Yabata for the videos.

The Time I Almost Ran Away with the Circus

I was very fortunate to spend some time recently in Chiang Mai with Cambodian circus theatre troupe Phare Ponleu Selpak. Their week long visit here was coordinated by Ratchanok (Nok) Ketboonruang and her local art collective, CNX Art Connex.

I first learned about CNX and their work last December, when Japanese Butoh master Katsura Kan performed his Time Machine and taught a Butoh and Contemporary Dance workshop in Chiang Mai. I had just returned to Thailand after spending five months back in the Bay Area and was very excited when I heard that someone of his stature in the dance world was in town.

I immediately started spreading the word amongst the folks in my local dance community, Dance Chiang Mai, many of whom showed up to both the performance and workshop. Nok was very grateful for my help with promotions and thus began a series of conversations on life, dance, and art.

As I got to know Nok better, I started to learn about CNX Art Connex and their goals. She and I, we discovered, share a common vision for contemporary arts in Chiang Mai and find ourselves playing similar roles in our respective communities.

“Distant Haze” by Phare Ponleu Selpak

We became fast friends with an unspoken pledge to work together and support one another in our projects.

I had not heard of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) when Nok started to tell me about CNX’s next project in Chiang Mai. PPS’s newest production, Distant Haze, which CNX was bringing to town, sounded interesting. Billed as a circus dance theater performance about children’s experience during the Khmer Rouge years, the few photos I saw from the performance captivated my imagination. I committed to helping out however I could with the production.

By then, I was part way through a long essay I’m (still) writing about Katsura Kan and his visit to Chiang Mai. Nok and I agreed that I should also write about PPS’s visit.

I was granted special permission to spend some time with the troupe and record a series of interviews with them, a privilege for which I’m very grateful. PPS are truly an inspiration, not merely because of the important socially conscious work they do, but also because of how, as human beings, they move through the world. It was always a delight to spend whatever time I could with them, to be in the presence of such joy.

They arrived to Chiang Mai late on a Monday night toward the end of January. On Tuesday evening, I made my way to the Alliance Française with much anticipation. There, at the pre-show Artist’s Talk, I got my first glimpse of the troupe and their talents. I also learned a great deal about PPS’s history and the incredible work they do with children and young adults in Cambodia.

I fell in love right away.

While seeing Distant Haze on Saturday night was certainly a major highlight of the week, so too was the day I spent with PPS out at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of town. PPS brought a lot of joy and inspiration to the detained youth that day. I felt incredibly lucky to be there, especially as a Westerner.

One thing that really struck me about the experience at the center was the level of politeness and respect the detained youth displayed for their visitors, as well as the easy affection they showed to one another. I tried to imagine witnessing similar scenes at a juvenile detention center in the US, but it just seemed incongruous and not at all likely.

Over two weeks later, I’m still feeling the vibrations from the week that PPS spent in Chiang Mai. If you’d like to learn more about PPS and their time here, please read the essay I wrote (yes, this was just a preamble!) here:

Circus with a Social Conscience: Cambodian Theatre Troupe Brings Message of Hope to Thailand

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