Metro Weekly

Thai Choreographer Jitti Chompee Pushes Boundaries

Thai choreographer Jitti Chompee joins IN Series to tell the tale of Vietnam veterans' homecoming in "The Return of Ulysses."

Jitti Chompee - Photo: Piyatat Hemmatat
Jitti Chompee – Photo: Piyatat Hemmatat

Coming out as gay was not an issue. Jitti Chompee remembers being just 11 or so. His parents weren’t particularly concerned, he says, as he was a serious, studious child. Good grades afforded him plenty of leeway.

“I grew up in Thailand where everything is open,” he says. “I’ve known who I am since I was very young. Not only my identity, but who I am, who I like, my choice of education, of occupation…. I always choose. I don’t have any problem with my identity as gay in Thailand. My parents let me do whatever I liked, because I was disciplined and really good at school.”

So good, actually, that he closed out his teen years with a degree in chemical engineering. Chompee’s path as a bright, gay, Thai man with a great career was set. Or was it? While coming out as gay was a non-issue, young Jitti was suddenly struck by a new, unexpected, passionate longing.

“When I was 19, I found something that inspired me,” Chompee, now 50, remembers, revisiting a dance performance. “I saw the performance and I wanted to try it for myself. I didn’t understand it. But I liked it. I felt it. I wanted to discover what it was.

“I was really good at school and wanted to be an engineer, but a moment changed me,” he continues. “I decided to take some classes, to see how it was done. I fell in love with dance and quit engineering. I had the passion to be a dancer, so I pursued dance.”

Whatever engineering may have had in store for Chompee, it’s impossible to imagine he could have built a more impressive career than the one he crafted with dance. Over the past three decades, Chompee has become a king of choreography, a diva of dance.

In Thailand, he has pushed boundaries while still celebrating classical Thai movement. He formed his own Bangkok-based dance company, 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre. He launched the Unfolding Kafka Festival. The French ambassador to Thailand in 2021 awarded Chompee France’s Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters for promoting performing arts in Thailand.

Beyond Thailand, Chompee’s career has been similarly spectacular. He studied dance at Hong Kong’s Wong School of Ballet and at The Ailey School of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. He’s been a guest choreographer, among other roles, involved with productions and institutions from Argentina to Morocco, from Japan to the Netherlands. And on and on.

It’s that flavor of international artistry, essentially, that’s brought Chompee to Washington, as choreographer for the IN Series production of The Return of Ulysses – Song of My Father, running at the Source Theatre through May 27, then running with the Baltimore Theatre Project May 31 to June 2.

Jitti Chompee - Photo: Piyatat Hemmatat
Jitti Chompee – Photo: Piyatat Hemmatat

Nearly a decade ago, when IN Series Artistic Director Timothy Nelson was living in the Netherlands, he came across a Chompee project rather by chance. Both artists were involved in entirely unrelated efforts, aside from similar themes of “love songs.” In Chompee’s case, it was dance tied to the French writer Jean Genet’s homoerotic short film, Un chant d’amour (Song of Love).

In that homoerotic theme, Nelson says that particular Chompee project “dealt a lot with the male body, with love between men. Not all his work does, but that one certainly did. I wanted to meet him.” And so he did, in 2012 Nelson guesses, in Madrid. An artistic bond was formed and come 2014 Nelson had Chompee working with him on an elaborate touring production of Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers).

The Return of Ulysses - Photo: IN Series
The Return of Ulysses – Photo: IN Series

“This is about Americans coming home from Vietnam,” Nelson says of Ulysses, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the start of America’s military involvement in the Vietnam War, which is the second installment of the IN Series’s Monteverdi trilogy. “The performers are not from Southeast Asia, and I wanted some authentic expression of that position in the piece.”

The conflict had essentially ended by the time Chompee was born. Although Thailand and Vietnam share a border, Chompee says he hadn’t thought much of this slice of history.

With regard to his particular sense or artistry, Chompee did not see a need for a crash course in America’s Vietnam involvement. Instead, he wanted to spend time walking the streets of Washington, getting to know the city and his audience. The next step was to become familiar with his dancers, Orange Grove Dance.

“The way I work, I like to create in the moment,” says Chompee. “I’m not the kind of person who wants to collect a lot of information, to read a lot of books. It’s not my way of creating. I’m a really strict person. I can be very stubborn. I know exactly what I like. But if you keep pushing, everything will break. When I’m working with a lot of people, I have to let them do what they want to do.”

That duality of the firm and the flexible is a large part of Chompee’s choreographic success, as Nelson explains it.

“He is the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Nelson observes. “He knows exactly what he wants. But he’s also aware, like any smart choreographer-director, that he can only get it by working through what the dancer brings to the table. It has the appearance that he’s being very generous, and building it off of them, but he’s using tricks to get what he wants out of their bodies.”

While Chompee has already left the country — projects on standby in France and Germany won’t create themselves, after all — he seems very proud of what he has left behind.

“I’m really happy that the dancers have grown so much since the first day I met them,” Chompee says with apparent pride. “I want to help the next generation achieve, and I’m so happy because they’ve grown a lot. And I’d really like people in D.C. to come see something new. It’s beautiful.”

IN Series‘s The Return of Ulysses – Song of My Father runs through Monday, May 27, at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, and Friday, May 31, to Sunday, June 2, at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets start at $45. Call 202-204-7763 or visit

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