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Traditional Thai dance, Russian ballet and street dance…all in one place

‘Classic Thai’, history, development and sheer beauty

Captain Crabtree Writes


Traditional Thai dance, Russian ballet and street dance…all in one place

Elena Edwards
The elegance and precision choreography of traditional Thai dance, (Fon Thai), with its accompanying traditional music, together with the colourful costumes and the beauty of the dancers, has made this unique art form famous worldwide. Originally, the dances were performed exclusively in the Royal Courts of ancient Siam by courtiers, both male and female, and were the highlights of ceremonial performances. Costume styles vary from region to region, and there are 5 distinct styles of dance, including the Fon Tian, (candle dance), during which the dancers carry lighted candles in each hand, and the Fon Leb, (fingernail dance), characterised by the long brass fingernails worn by the dancers, which accentuate the graceful hand movements for which the art form is famous.

Pictured is Jarauyaporn Jainawan, the principle of the Russian Ballet Society School in Chiang Mai and the Thai Dance Institute.

Recently, on behalf of this newspaper, I was invited through a friend to visit the Russian Ballet Society’s dance academy here in Chiang Mai, and was surprised to find that the school, which specialises in the Legat system of Russian Ballet, also teaches Thai dance to many farangs! Almost before I knew what was happening, I found myself one-to-one in a studio with the school’s principal, Jarauyaporn Jainawan, a highly-respected expert in Fon Thai, being given a 2 hour introductory course in this fascinating dance form! The class began, surprisingly, with my learning a short, (fortunately), Thai song, Plang Ngam Sang Duan, which contained the traditional rhythm of the basic dance I was to be taught. As I’m completely unfamiliar with Thai musical structures, this may have taken longer than was intended! The next step, (literally!), was the slow, elegant, rhythmically swaying walk which accompanies the graceful hand and arm movements typical of Thai dance. At this point, it became obvious that, in my calves, feet and knees, I had muscles which hadn’t been used in years…ouch! A five-kilometre hike around the studio desperately trying to copy my teacher’s sinuous movements resulted in vastly improved posture and vastly aching muscles! Gratefully, I accepted her offer to sit down while we practiced the hand and arm movements. This time, I discovered tiny muscles in my hands I didn’t even know existed! More ouch! Sadly, however many hours I practice, my farang hands are never going to bend back into half-circles…with or without 6-inch fingernails! By the end of the class I was exhausted, but, thanks to an excellent teacher, I was also beginning to get the point, and have to say that it was a rewarding, fun and enjoyable experience. So much so that I might well go back for some more classes, as it’s very tempting to be able to move so gracefully!
The school’s second speciality, the Legat System of Russian Ballet, originated in the early years of the last century when Nicholai Legat, the ballet master of the Bolshoi, and his wife Nadine Nicolaeva fled Russia after the revolution and settled in the south of France to work with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in Monte Carlo. After several years, Nicholas and Nadine crossed the English Channel and settled in London, founding their own school. Accomplished dancers such as Fonteyn, Dolin and Shearer flocked to the maestro’s classes, and the school quickly became famous for its Legat System of Classical Ballet. After Nicolai’s death in 1937, Nadine took over; at the beginning of WW 2, due to evacuation requirements, the first boarding ballet school in the UK was established in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and later moved to Finchcocks Manor in the nearby countryside. Following Nadine’s retirement in 1967, her former pupil, Eunice Bartell, continued to run the school until 1986. Since then, the Russian Ballet Society’s system and syllabus have travelled across the world to Italy, Germany, Malta Cyprus, Slovenia, the USA, Japan and, amazingly, to Chiang Mai in Thailand, with international summer ballet courses being regularly held in Europe. The strength of the Legat system is based on flexibility of mind as well as body, and results in an impressive combination of strength, technique and mental agility.
Chiang Mai’s Russian Ballet Society school has been teaching the Legat system as well as classical Thai dance since its opening 5 years ago. For ballet, students’ ages range from 4 years old to young adults, and for Thai dance—anyone can learn from the age of 9 years, and, according to Jarauyaporn, some farangs even find it easy! Teachers at the school include her daughter, Meuk, who teaches ballet to advanced level; her other daughter, Mint, is an administrator. As well as the two specialities, the school will also provide classes in Hip-Hop, based on the Australian Teachers of Dancing’s Street dance syllabus, (www. — a transition from traditional through classical to an ultra-modern dance form which mirrors Thailand’s transition during the last 100 years! For those living, (a lot!), further out of town, Lampang has a franchised, smaller school teaching the Legat system and curriculum. Jarauyaporn’s dream is to expand the number of Russian Ballet Society dance schools across the kingdom!
Thai dance classes at this friendly and welcoming school come in 3 formats, the introductory class is 2 hours, and costs 900 baht; the comprehensive course costs 9,000 baht and lasts 20 hours per exam grade, of which there are 10. The extensive course is for an unlimited amount of time with set periods of study, and is by agreement. A special offer for the introductory class is available at present; 2 people attending together will only pay 300 baht each. Ballet classes are 2 hours duration, and cost 500 baht per person. For more info, please contact Mint on 053-801-375. The school is located just off the Superhighway going north from Airport Plaza, at 53 Kohklang Road, Nong Hoi, Chiang Mai 50000.


‘Classic Thai’, history, development and sheer beauty

Elena Edwards
The beauty and diversity of traditional Thai design, be it in textiles, temple artefacts, dress, traditional crafts or architecture, has long fascinated Westerners, from professional interior decorators to people who are attracted to the style and flavour and wish to make it part of their homes. Here in the ancient Lanna Kingdom, as well as in the rest of Thailand, the designs of traditional furnishings and room decorations have been carried down the centuries to the present day, and are reflected in the work of many thousands of craftsmen and women across the northern provinces and also across the entire kingdom.
A combination of the hundreds of years of resettlement which have taken place in the north and the vast ethnic diversity of the incoming tribes and nationalities has resulted in a confusingly interlinked wealth of beautiful artefacts for the home. Confusing, however, is the word…with styles and designs originating from Royal history, Buddhist religious convention, tribal identification designs in woven silk and other textiles and clothing, and the sheer exuberance of creative talent throughout the ages.
A recently published book, ‘Classic Thai’, one of a series of three released by Periplus Editions, provides its readers with a cornucopia of Thai art, architecture and artefacts, together with a good number of interesting design ideas for those who can’t resist the highly decorative nature of Thai traditional arts. It traces the specifically and unmistakeable ‘Thai-ness’ of the decorative and stylistic elements which occur across the spectrum of art and architecture from its beginning in the Khmer heritage, (13th century), through the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya eras, (including the Lanna Kingdom), to the present-day Rattanakosin era. Shapes and motifs are identified as originating, not only in Thailand itself, but also, (skilfully incorporated throughout the centuries into the Thai style), from India, Sri Lanka, the Mon, (Hariphunchai, based in Lamphun), civilisation, Burma, China and even Europe. The influence of both Buddhism and the Thai Monarchy is embedded in Thai art; the book’s text provides an in-depth analysis of design tradition and craftsmanship.
Beginning with a chapter on the traditional and much-admired Thai teak house, ‘Classic Thai’ leads the reader through Thailand’s major religious and Royal sites, providing details and historical references missing in the usual ‘coffee-table’ books. The photographs of interiors and exteriors are of high quality; the interiors, especially, showing traditional designs and artefacts displayed in exquisite settings. Magnificently gilded Thai lacquer designs on cabinets with the typically Thai tapering shape; superb wood-carvings illustrating skills passed down through hundreds of years as well as the famous Thai floral motifs; gilded, carved wood Buddha images, antique and modern; the use of glowing planked teak on walls, ceilings and highly-polished floors; mother-of- pearl inlaid containers and chests; red-lacquered or beaten metal bowls; furnishing silks in vibrant colours; traditional rattan furniture; all these in beautifully designed room settings. A decorator’s dream!
Even if we couldn’t hope to imitate the settings and their treasures, the book itself is an informative treat to read, with most chapters concentrating on a particular palace, (including Bangkok’s Royal Palace), house or temple and its contents. The last section, Classic Thai Design and Craftsmanship, takes the reader through Thai ceramics, (emphasising the connection between Chinese Song Dynasty celadon motifs and shapes and northern Thai celadons) , textiles, painting styles, furniture, ceremonial containers and gold and silver jewellery—a feast for the eye, and informative as regards the manufacture and history of the items.

‘Classic Thai’(ISBN-13:978-0-7946-0466-0) and its two companion books, ‘Things Thai’, (ISBN 962-593-776-5); and, ‘Contemporary Thai’, (ISBN-13:978-0-7946-0476-9), can be easily ordered online at ‘Things Thai’ and ‘Contemporary Thai’ will be reviewed in this column shortly.

Captain Crabtree Writes

Archie James
Captain Crabtree’s unmistakeable irony has been relocated due to lack of space elsewhere…herewith his ‘tongue in cheek’ missive to his sister, who is planning an unwelcome visit. Let’s all hope it’s not prophetic!

My dear sister Mabel, I thank you for yours
And shall be delighted to see you, of course!
And, since you ask me, I’ll certainly try
To give you an up to date view of Chiang Mai
Which you can confirm any day, I should guess,
From government websites and topical press.

Chiang Mai is quite quiet and that’s mainly thanks
To the calm, reassuring presence of tanks.
Our streets are all peaceful, for during the night
They’re patrolled by nice coppers who shoot you on sight.
The bar men are helpful, for out they will turf you
To send you safe home by the nine o’clock curfew.

Pollution is fine. On the way to my place
My hand can be often seen close to my face
But maybe it’s useful to take on the task
And find in the attic your wartime gas mask
And the ankle supports that you’ve sensibly saved
Since the pavements of Chiang Mai are crazily paved.

Thai food is delicious, but spend a few pennies
To bring Alka Seltzer and large loads of Rennies
For the meal, even chewed, can be terribly spicy
And pains of the abdomen often quite dicey.
You’ll never go hungry. The food’s very nice.
If you do not want rice, the alternative’s rice.

Now, when you are packing, alone in the house,
Pay special attention to colour of blouse.
Do not pack the red or the yellow or blue,
The rainbow or white, for it’s probably true
You’ll be seen as political – that’s a plain fact -
And either molested, arrested, attacked.

It’s true, sister Mabel, the orchids are faded.
The airport in Bangkok is always blockaded.
The boys are all girls and the girls all for hire.
The monks’ endless chanting’s not like Saint Luke’s choir.
The dogs all have rabies, and I should forewarn
That they bark bark and bark from near sundown to dawn.

The insects are monstrous with terrible stings -
In the dark of the night you’ll hear beating of wings.
The hot sun gives blisters so it’s such a boon
To have, for two months, our torrential monsoon.
Yes, take walks in the jungle but stay wide awake
For the usual rogue elephant, tiger or snake.

In short, sister Mabel, build up your endurance
And take out a whacking great travel insurance.
I’ll quite understand if you’re better by far
At Mrs Rook’s B&B, Leamington Spa.