Among the many presentations of lyric theater from Southeast Asia that Washington is being offered this month, Thailand put its foot forward first. And if "Rothasen," the classical epic presented Saturday night at the National Institutes of Health's Masur Auditorium, proves to be typical, then one needn't be wary of exotic and mysterious subject matter.
Similarities with Western legends, ballets, operas and even horse operas abound. The story deals with a prince who must win his patrimony because an ogress has banished his mother and her 11 beautiful, blind sisters from his father's palace. With a talent for training fighting cocks and the help of a faithful horse, and after many adventures in search of two therapeutic herbs (a yawning mango and a mocking lime) as well as his aunts' stolen eyes, the prince triumphs.
The action is conveyed by classical dance, character dance, gestural mime, song and speech -- not unlike the means used in the Parisian opera-ballets of the 18th century. It wouldn't even stretch the truth too much to call some of the Thai dance steps by such ballet terminology as bourrees (the bobbing sort, and done on half-point), glissades (short glides, mostly), and attitudes (with the raised leg front more often than back, and the foot flexed). The performers' basic stance involves turned-out legs and knees lightly bent in plie.
There are differences, of course. The music's tonalities and timbres are not those of the diatonic scale or the full-chested voice and symphonic orchestra. Yet one can easily distinguish whether the singers and gamelan instrumentalists intend to please the listener or be cacophonous. Motion is slow much of the time, the full body is seldom straightened and hardly ever really stretched although palms and fingers are bent back emphatically. Arms and hands are busy incessantly, weaving intricate patterns and forming symbols but the "balletic" footwork is limited compared not only to our choreographic tradition but to several other Indic styles.
The most profound distinction between "Rothasen" and such Western works as "Swan Lake" and "Tannhauser" is that the hero succumbs to seduction without losing his virtue. In the Thai pantheon of values there are the good, the bad and the sensual, but there is no guilt. In all circumstances, whether carrying his fighting cock (danced by a small child) or entwined in an erotic embrace, Prince Rothasen (who is a previous incarnation of the Buddha) wears the serenest of smiles.
The production, by the Thai Culture and Performing Arts Association of Washington, starred the elegant Paungtip Earmratana in travesty as the prince and the subtly vigorous Koravit Cheyjanpi as his stallion. There were two guest artists from Bangkok, Thongchai Photayarom, who danced the invocation, and Ranee Chaisongkram who, in travesty, was the king. Costumes were of lavish materials, and the scenery and props designed with a sense of humor.
The performance took place in the presence of Princess Vudhichalerm Vudhijaya and Thai Ambassador Vithya Vejjajiva and his wife, Orasa.