By: Rachel K. Hindery
Guests at Triton College experienced a musical, visual and even culinary journey to Thailand with the opening performance of the World Music Series, For Our Teacher: The Story of Prince Sung-Tong. This free cultural event took place in the Performing Arts Center of the Robert M. Collins Center on Saturday, August 20, 2016 at 7 p.m. Triton hosted master dance instructor Jutarut Suntharanund and dancers between 3 and 70 years of age, a 7-member Thai classical orchestra, and 5 singers. Special guests, including President of the Thai Cultural and Fine Arts Institute, Suttisak Pardungkiattisak, and Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth were also in attendance.
Subtle details—the performance program printed in both Thai and English, a table with snack food from both America (chips) and Thailand (savory buns), and the sounds of traditional Hom Rong (overture) music—were signs of welcome both to guests from Chicago’s vibrant Thai community, Triton students and area residents who may be unfamiliar with Thai culture.
Introductions, which were also given in both Thai and English, highlighted the intergenerational nature of the programming. In the words of Mr. Pardungkiattisak, “she [Ms. Suntharanund] allows the art and culture of Thailand to endure in today’s youth”. The production marked the culmination of 2 years of preparation by dancers, some of whom traveled from as far away as Canada to participate. Dancers and musicians have performed globally, including in Thailand and Trinidad and Tobago, as well as in many U.S. states.
In addition to celebrating Thai culture, performers and guests were also celebrating Ms. Suntharanund’s 60th birthday. The theme of dance and music as a bridge, both between generations and cultures, was recurring, and Mr. Pardungkiattisak recalled seeing his own 3-year-old daughter learning classical Thai dance. Ms. Suntharanund also described her intention in the program notes: “I thought about what I could do to benefit the greater good and I thought about all the students I have taught these past 25 years in America. This event was thus created in order to build a bridge connecting the past, present, and future. I am grateful that our Thai community—near and far, old and young, past and present—has come together for this function…Above all, the most important reason I organized this event is for future generations to understand the value in hard work, harmony, and love for the Thai culture…”.
The 5 dances and a two-scene play comprising the performance were extremely well choreographed. The skilled use of choreography, lighting, set design and traditional costuming aided audience members who did not speak Thai. Dances and were introduced in Thai and English but sung in Thai. Through Ms. Suntharanund’s choreography and the dancers’ skill, one could still follow the action of the play or dances without understanding the language. The first dance, The Dance of Benediction, honored Ms. Suntharanund’s birthday. The second dance, Rabum Daowadeung, represented gods, angels, and celestial objects. Khon: Nunthuk’s Courtship of Vishnu in Disguise, followed with the story of Nonthuk, a divine giant who learns the proper uses of power. Audience members experienced the unique dance heritage of central Thailand in the fourth dance, Si Nuan.
The highlight and title performance of the evening was two scenes from The Story of Prince Sung-Tong. Ms. Suntharanund brought her audience new or renewed appreciation of a dance drama that was written by King Rama II of Thailand (Siam) and first performed in the 1800s. King Rama II, who ruled the Chakkri dynasty 1809-1824 wrote poems, plays, and dance dramas. This is perhaps a fitting choice for an evening celebrating the bridges between cultures and the importance of the arts. During his rule, King Rama II reopened relations with the West and presided over the second golden age of Thai literature when writers, including female poets, gained prominence. Readers who are interested in learning about the background of this play may wish to view the Encyclopedia Britannica entries on Rama II or the second golden age of Southeast Asian arts.
Ms. Suntharanund used her artistic talents to highlight some of her youngest dancers in The Story of Prince Sung-Tong. The greatest audience response of the evening came when students as young as 3 years old depicted fish. The audience joined in, supporting these young artists with good-natured laughter and applause.
After a brief intermission, Ms. Suntharanund addressed the audience, thanking them for their support and receiving an award from the Thai Cultural and Fine Arts Institute of Chicago. This award is added to at least 7 awards previously earned by Ms. Suntharanund for her expertise in choreography, community service and dedication to the enhancement and preservation of Thai culture. Ms. Suntharanund has performed extensively in Thailand, as well as Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Laos, England, France, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, and studied at Chulalongkorn University, the top-ranked university in Thailand. A dancer since the age of 5, Ms. Suntharanund has been teaching and directing for over 25 years. This world-renowned artist is not unknown to Triton College; she directed a play here in 2008. The second scene of The Story of Prince Sung-Tong followed her remarks.
The Journey of Rice in 4 Regions ended the performance. This dance, the finale, showcased each region of Thailand (north, south, central and northeastern). For those who may only be familiar with major cities in Thailand such as its capital, Bangkok, this dance was an important reminder of the cultural diversity within Thailand. The dance highlighted musical styles, costuming and powerful drumming from each section. The cast and Thai audience members concluded the celebratory evening by singing Sansoen Phra Barami, a Thai song of respect for their King.
In her message in the performance program, Ms. Suntharanund expressed her birthday wish: “my hope is that the Thai fine arts can continue to thrive in America.” Triton College helped grant that wish as it began its World Music Series.
The World Music Series next takes listeners on an auditory trip to Africa when Kaben Kafo (“let’s play together”) returns to Triton for an outdoor performance at noon on Wednesday, September 7 on the Student Center Mounds. Triton students and guests will experience live djembe music from some of the most gifted musicians in Chicago.
Readers who are interested in learning more about musical offerings at Triton College may visit the Visual, Performing, and Communication Arts webpage. All events are open to the public, and most are free of charge. Readers who are interested in learning more about Thai arts and culture are encouraged to visit The Thai Cultural and Fine Arts Institute of Chicago.