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Flash Review 1, 8-28: Back from the Dead
From the Killing Fields to the Joyce with the Spirit of Cambodia

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2001 Maura Nguyen Donohue

By most estimates, 90 percent of Cambodia's artists and intellectuals perished as a result of the Khmer Rouge's 4-year cleansing campaign that left between one and two million dead. The artists who had been under the protection of the temple and court for over a thousand years were denounced as bourgeois and sentenced to death by execution, forced labor, starvation or disease. These people had once been considered intermediaries between the celestial world and the royal household. But by 1980, when the survivors began trying to locate one another, fewer than 40 dancers and teachers could be found. It isn't possible to watch a program of Cambodian dance, even one as skillfully serene as Dance, fhe Spirit of Cambodia (a project of the Royal University of Fine Arts-RUFA) this past weekend at the Joyce, without considering the immense suffering and struggle behind the sweet smiles and opulent costumes.

It's also not possible, unless you didn't get a program, to leave the Joyce without noticing that this tour of 45 dancers and musicians, and essentially the preservation of Cambodian dance itself, would never had been possible if not for some dedicated American support. This unprecedented 12-city tour -- there was a smaller tour over 10 years ago -- has been produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts, the Asia Society and Lisa Booth Management. NEFA's executive director, Sam Miller and artistic director, Proeng Chhieng, planned a tour that did much more than showcase a group of gathered artists. This tour serves to help strengthen Cambodian dance at a time when the few remaining masters are rapidly aging. Connections with American-based masters in refugee Cambodian communities in the U.S. have been instrumental in the documentation and preservation process. There are educational programs and lectures in each location.

I don't applaud American support uninformed. Last week at meetings for Dance Theater Workshop's Mekong Project I heard tales from the Asian Cultural Council's director Ralph Samuelson about the important support systems the ACC, with the aid of the Rockefeller Foundation, has put into place to help maintain RUFA. Though the university was re-established in 1980, soon after the end of the Khmer Rouge's reign, it's taken until this year for a theater to open on campus. With ACC aid, a library has been opened and faculty salaries are subsidized so that teachers don't have to hustle in addition to teaching in order to simply survive.

Of course, none of this background matters on stage. The artists present an enjoyable survey of classical court and folk dance and music. The Joyce program opened with the breathtaking image of three women floating like the apsaras (celestial dancers) carved throughout Angkor Wat. They danced in a manner of extreme serenity, a befitting description if you've ever witnessed the intensely calm manner of a Cambodian dancer. The technique requires intense focus made to look effortless. The manner is grounded, often in a soft plie, yet fluid, and the bearing quite regal. A simple and subtle, but noticeably significant, shift of weight follows controlled undulations that support the articulating fingers of the graceful women. It's both sweet and seductive. Bits of folk dance liven up the otherwise tranquil selections and Mr. Nol Soboun's solo playing on four of Cambodia's many woodwind instruments is a lesson in circular breathing, a difficult skill that involves inhaling and exhaling simultaneously so as not to break up the emitted sound.

The shorter pieces in the first half of the program set the audience up for the excerpt from everyone's favorite Indian epic, the Ramayana (known as the Reamker), that makes up the second act. Here in court tradition, women play men and men play monkees. (No comment). One of the most enjoyable scenes, however, is distinctly Cambodian. Hanuman -- the monkey general, played by a skillfully athletic and engaging Mr. Soeur Thavarak -- woos Sovann Maccha, queen of the mermaids, in a delightful performance by Ms. Ouk Solichumnith. This chapter doesn't appear in any Indian versions. Ms. Khieu Sotheavy is a commanding and stately Preah Ream (Prince Rama) whose smallest shift at the pleas of Ms. Sam Sathya's Neang Seda (Princess Sita) is delicious theater. The formalized battle sequence is striking and the staging and lighting design for Neang Seda's trial by fire is absolutely heavenly. We were transported to a celestial palace.

NEFA has established the Fund for Cambodian Culture. For more information, please click here.


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