“No matter where I go, or what I do, I always want to come back here,” explains Waewdao Sirisook fondly, gesturing to the sunny, bustling streets of Chiang Mai that surround the coffee shop where we meet. Waewdao has been dancing for over 20 years, a passion that has jettisoned her around the globe, a skill that can be seen in the slightest of her movements, a connection to her body evident in the nonchalant but elegant wave of her hand. “The people here, no matter how I perform, no matter what kind of dance it is, come out and support me. I will always come back to show them what I’ve learned, no matter what.”
As Waewdao walks the lonely thin line between criticism and celebration of her culture, this support of the Chiang Mai community is something that Waewdao holds dear. Her dances are firmly rooted in Lanna style, but can easily be regarded as esoteric. The messages she conveys through her work are nothing short of jarring. Her choreography, which she classifies as dance theatre, doesn’t conform to any Western classical style like ballet, jazz, or hip hop, because Waewdao has never studied them. Her tendency to break the mould of tradition and her resistance to give in to the exotification of Lanna culture while simultaneously remaining true to Lanna roots has won her local and international recognition through multiple awards, grants and fellowships.
Waewdao began her professional career in 1996 at the age of 19 while touring internationally with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and performing at what she describes as “cultural promotion events”. This experience trained her vigorously in Lanna and all styles of Thai dance, and while it increased her skills dramatically, Waewdao felt the events often times created an inauthentic depiction of Thailand’s roots.
“A lot of the dances felt like we were just there to satisfy the audience. There was pressure to perform in a way that the audience would appreciate. We had to be fancy, we had to try to be more than who we really are.”
Though Waewdao’s work explores many themes, this feeling of exotification and its deconstruction would become one of the most recurring motifs in her dances, and something she experiences constantly in her career.
“In 2009 I was asked to work with the Black Eyed Peas on the music video for Boom Boom Pow,” Waewdao recounts, “They came to me and said they wanted something that resembled the 1,000 hand Guan Yin, but that’s Chinese! I took the job anyway, and I taught will.i.am, apl.de.ap and Taboo some dances. Afterwards, I was really disappointed. It was really overproduced, just a silhouette really, of Fergie. But, I got to wear a 3D suit like Smeagle in Lord of the Rings, so that was a good experience.”
Waewdao received another opportunity to bring Lanna to an international audience during the TEDx talks held at Tha Pae Gate in 2012. With only 15 minutes allotted, she consolidated one of her most prized pieces into a brief solo performance.
The dance, entitled Lanna Dream, Waewdao’s signature dance, is what she describes as her personal take on the exotification, and self-exotification of Lanna culture. It transforms “traditional ceremonies” into exaggerated affairs, inflating them to the state of ridiculousness and mocking popular notions such as kam muang’s (Northern Thai language) resemblance to the “sweet and mellow music and dance of the region”. Waewdao, mid dance, will unleash a blue streak of profanity in kam muang, going for the shock juxtaposition. The costumes are also a conglomeration of dresses; a hodgepodge of something Southeast Asian-ish, highlighting the world’s tendency to blur the cultural distinctions of a region.
The last scene in Lanna Dream includes a dancing blow up doll in a blue dress, with Waewdao stripping to her underwear. “It’s easy to make money in five minutes,” Waewdao remarks, while disrobing the doll completely and dropping it to the floor. A distorted piece of electronic music creeps into the silence and Waewdao performs a peculiar dance, seemingly losing control of her hands and arms and following them with her eyes in a trance. The music stops abruptly, Waewdao continues in awkward silence, and then stoops to pluck a microphone from the floor. Bold faced and stripped to her undergarments in the spotlight she offers an explanation of the dance, one that she deemed necessary due to the abbreviated version of the piece.
“This performance is nothing new,” Waewdao explains, “it’s just to show things that are not normally exposed. It is a reality that gets abandoned in public. Maybe we should look at ourselves in the mirror, and consider this image before producing even more images of our self for the outside world. Thank you.”
The reaction to Lanna Dream was mostly positive for Waewdao, but as she began to perform it internationally, not entirely. “I performed the piece in China, at an event similar to the cultural promotion events I did with the TAT. Afterwards, nobody talked to me. They pretended like I didn’t exist.”
“People would say to me before I did Lanna Dream, ‘You, as an Asian female, you are already considered a sexual object, and you are just confirming it when you show your body.’ So I started to use the blow up doll as an answer to that. On the box for the doll it’s called ‘Yellow Fever,’ than it says ‘My body is your temple of love’.”
One of Waewdao’s most avante garde performances, Sawang Dee or The Spirit and Voice of Nature, took place at the base of an Australian willow rooted in the lush grounds of the University of California’s botanical garden, where Waewdao achieved her MFA. Californian authorities deemed the botanical garden inaccessible to wheelchairs, and Waewdao was unable to promote it as a public performance. Instead, Waewdao transformed it into a video project, hiring camera operators and conducting the cinematography. The video, which Waewdao cues up for me on her iPad, is captivating.
I want people to understand how it feels to be the female body that performs you.
“There’s a tree that is known in Lanna culture, the Chang Na, in the Himmaphan forest, and each year when the flower blooms the animals and people smell the scent of the flower. Basically, it drives everyone and everything crazy, and they all make love to each other, people and animals. It’s a legend to explain all of the creatures of the Himmaphan forest. I think maybe this tree blooms at the Warm Up every night!”
In the video, five dancers in flowing white gowns circle the wide trunk of the willow tree, their movements disconnected as if performing separate dances of their own. One dancer moves slowly and gracefully, as if performing underwater. Another moves erratically, caressing the trunk of the tree and reacting to it as if possessed, her body erupting into a fury of primal, spastic motion.
“This is one of my pieces where I began to ask a lot of questions about Buddhism and Animism,” Waewdao explains. “Surely this tree didn’t actually exist, but there are trees that people actually worship in Northern Thailand. They believe there’s a spirit in the tree, but does it really have a spirit? There’s a lot of beautiful but also unrealistic things in the story, and I wanted to explore them. But I started with just one idea – I wanted to know what it felt like when that flower bloomed.”
Waewdao’s latest piece, entitled Lanna Rebel, will premiere at the Chiang Mai University Arts Centre on July 4th.
“With this piece, I want to tell people that it’s okay to be themselves. I know everyone knows that already, but I just want to say it again, out loud. I know that it sounds a little arrogant to call it Lanna Rebel, like I’m the Lanna Rebel, but I think that everyone has their own rebellious side, it just depends on when and how it bursts out of them.”
Waewdao now lives in Iowa City with her husband and collaborator Michael Sakamoto, but makes frequent trips to Chiang Mai to remain part of the dance community. To Waewdao, Iowa City is small, and quiet, but she also enjoys knowing that Iowa State is one of the wildest party schools in the country. She giggles at the thought, there’s a playful, youthful energy to her that I suspect comes from someone that dances for a living. In Iowa, Waewdao will begin as professor of dance performance this semester at Iowa State University, and she hopes to form a dance group similar to the Lan Sattha Dance Group that she led while living in Los Angeles.
Waewdao Sirisook, now 37, has no intent of slowing down. She intends to bring her pieces to areas where she thinks woman need it most. “My next mission is to bring this kind of work to a place where seeing something like this will shock them. I want to spend more time in Cambodia, and India, and places where females feel they don’t have the rights to express what they feel or show who they are. I want to do a piece like Lanna Dream in that kind of place, I want people to understand how it feels to be the female body that performs for you.”
Catch Waewdao Sirisook’s premiere of Lanna Rebel, a joint production with Michael Sakamoto and his piece, Gherm:
July 4th, 2015, 2pm and 7 pm at Chiang Mai University Arts Centre
Tickets 300 TB, 150 TB (students)
Reservations: FB Waewdao Sirisook, 089 7557059