Many of us are aware of the late King Bhumibol’s talents in different fields, but only a few art history buffs know about Manohra ballet, the first Thai-style ballet in history co-composed by His Majesty.
It all started when King Bhumibol Adulyadej paid an official visit to the Phattalung province in 1959. There, the local governor presented His Majesty with a unique performance inspired by manohra, a performance based on southern Thai culture and Thai folklore. Inspired by the show’s exotic moves and the story of a half-human, half-bird mythical creature, His Majesty later reinterpreted the traditional dance into a Western-style ballet, a performance art that he’s fond of. Under his supervision, ballets experts were brought in to perfect the project. Choreography was created by Madame Genévière L. Damon, while costumes were designed by Pierre Balmain. The king himself composed a number of songs such as “Nature Waltz,” “The Hunter,” and “Kinary Waltz” for the show. The extravagant Manohra ballet was first staged and professionally filmed in 1962 at Suan Amporn Dance Hall.
To honor His Majesty’s contributions to the Thai contemporary dance scene, the Royal Cremation Committee decided to restage the performance—for the first time in decades—during the royal funeral ceremonies. “Following ancient tradition, there will be festivities and performances the day after the royal cremation to celebrate the journey to heaven of the late King’s soul. The Royal Cremation Preparation Committee planned to stage numbers of production, from khon to orchestra. Therefore, it had been discussed that, since there will be a full orchestra performing, perhaps adding the Manohra ballet as a part of the performance could give a highlight to the show. Most importantly, there are still many people who may not know that our late King Bhumibol was the mastermind behind the Manohra ballet—the first Thai-style ballet show in the history of contemporary dance,” explains show director Suteesak Pakdeeteva.
Suteesak, a ballet dancer himself, explains how the legendary Manohra ballet is important to all Thai ballet dancers. Every restage required His Majesty’s royal permission, so being part of the show was nearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a dream for all Thai dancers. Fortunately, Suteesak had his dreams fulfilled. “My dream came true in 1992 when the Manohra ballet was restaged to celebrate the 50th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. I was one of the dancers and my role was a tiger. It was a small role, but I remember clearly how proud I was to perform in front of the King and the Queen. And, to now be a director for the upcoming Manohra Ballet, I feel truly blessed.”
Suteesak and his crew auditioned ballet performers from around the kingdom. He reveals that the audition was quite competitive as every Thai ballet dancer wanted to be part of this historic show. “All ballet schools in the country had sent over their best students for the audition. And they all came without expectation to take on the leading roles; they would take any. They just wanted to be in the show. I was touched to see how the ballet community united for this special occasion,” he says. “While the show respects the original storyline and musical numbers, the choreography has been modernized to showcase the talents of Thai ballet dancers today. Also, since the original costumes are already worn out, respected Thai fashion brand Tube Gallery recreated the dresses for the show. The outfit of the leading character, Manohra, was inspired by the golden statue of Kinnara at the Temple of Emerald Buddha.”
“It is a great opportunity to witness one of the many talents of our beloved late King. Even for those who may have never heard the story before, the storyline will be easy to understand. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime performance,” Suteesak concludes.