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Flash Review Journal 1, 4-28: Across the Great Divide
Whole Lotta Change Migrating Across Asia & US

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2005 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- When dancers from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh last appeared in New York it was impossible to discuss the work without primarily addressing the historical context of the arts and artists who survived the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. It was the main story: the need to preserve a form almost entirely wiped out along with the approximately 1.7 million Cambodians killed during the four-year slaughter. Last week at the Joyce Theater, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, a member of the first generation to graduate from RUFA after Pol Pot's reign, trumpeted a challenging call with her program "Seasons of Migration," performed by a troupe of dancers from RUFA. This time the running back story is about the need to rejuvenate the tradition through the creation of original works and the subsequent hurdles this gifted choreographer faces both here and in Cambodia.

I met Sophiline two years ago in New Delhi. She and I were both part of a contingent of Asian American artists observing the Asian Women's Theater Festival. Actually, we shared a hotel room, though I rarely saw Sophiline as she was also performing her solo "The Glass Box," aiding the troupe of actors from Cambodia's National Theater and discussing "Samritechak," her Khmer dance drama version of "Othello," on a panel. Despite her humble, almost diminutive, manner it became very clear to me that this woman was highly driven, very knowledgeable and probably really stubborn. She served on the faculty of RUFA from 1988 to 1991 before immigrating to the US, studying dance ethnology at UCLA and founding the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, California.

Sophiline's proclivity towards original, and subsequently contemporary works has ruffled quite a few feathers back in Cambodia. She's been accused of destroying the form. Meanwhile, here in the US her work is met mostly with great appreciation but not much understanding. I don't expect that most of the members of the packed house at the Joyce Saturday night noticed great differences between the centuries-old dance drama "Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala" and the work juxtaposed against it after the intermission, "Seasons of Migration." Anyone who didn't read the program or any of the press previews wouldn't catch a difference in movement vocabulary or costuming that would hint at the work's modern, and apparently subversive, approach. But those who are looking would see shifts in staging, pacing and performance that tag the piece as subtly new and different.

Last November I travelled to Cambodia for part of a three-week Dance Theater Workshop Mekong Project residency. Artists from the US, Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam gathered to share their work and collaborate together. In Cambodia, at a previous residency in Thailand, during the New Delhi festival, and with artists I've met in Japan, collaborated with in Vietnam, reviewed in Hong Kong and interviewed across the US I've enjoyed and observed an ongoing discussion with and among my peers throughout Asia and the US about contemporary work. Many Asian artists trained primarily in western -- and thus contemporary -- forms borrow from or perhaps return to tradition as a way of enhancing their work. Those who are trained in traditional forms often eventually are pulled into "contemporary" circles and projects -- sometimes simply because that's where opportunities lie, others because they are young and new is cool and the world is shrinking. Generally though, it ends up being mere imitation no matter which direction the artist is coming from. Classical dancers laugh at modern ones when they try to incorporate traditional elements; modern artists scoff at work that barely resembles our revered Cutting Edge. Those who can succeed need deep insight into both tradition and innovation and not just the superficial trappings.

In Cambodia this kind of innovating can be met with a great deal of opposition. I was told once that the minister of culture and fine arts, Princess Bopha Devi, herself once a star and chief dancer of the Royal Cambodian Ballet, had outlawed choreographically changing the apsaras, the hand gestures taken from temple carvings and used in traditional dance. Chumvan (Abell) Sodachivy, a choreography student at RUFA and a member of Sophiline's current touring company, showed interest in modern dance during the Mekong Project residency but struggles against the general lack of availability in Cambodia of accurate information about current worldwide dance trends. (See my previous musings on this topic here.) Sophiline has been criticized by her teachers and the directors of RUFA for making work that is critical, and worse still, not happy.

Both of these women use traditional dance to address recent history. As part of the November residency in which I took part, Abell presented an original work, "Samritechak," about the concentrated elimination of dancers under the Khmer Rouge and the later resurrection of the spirit of dance. In addition to the subtle shifts in form, whether they escape an uninformed audience or rankle purists, their shared focus on using dance to address social and political issues places them in a modern forum. "Samritechak" is a commentary on the leaders of Cambodia who have escaped justice for their participation in the genocide, while Sophiline's "Glass Box" speaks of women's subjugation.

"Seasons of Migration" looks at culture shock. The curtain rises to reveal the pin peat orchestra seated across the back of the stage. Two abstracted apsaras painted onto fabric hang in the background and two pedestals sit on opposite sides of the stage. These are the immediate obvious signals of a modification from the classic tale of thunder and lightning presented during the first half of the program. The dancers are still exquisitely sublime but enter in theatrical blackouts and assume asymmetrical patterns. Still though, a slightly raised and lowered shoulder with hyper-extended elbows and backward curving fingers is delicious and delicate. The seemingly effortless lift before each weight shift and promenade is controlled and calm. The simple act of flexing fingers before they curl into a stylized wave of a finger is as rousing as 32 fouettes from American Ballet Theatre's finest.

"Seasons of Migration" presents four sections, each corresponding to a stage of culture shock: Euphoria, Rejection, Adjustment and Equilibrium. The tale has heavenly spirits coming to live on earth. Sam Sathya performing as Neang Neak, the Naga serpent found in many parts of SE Asia, in the second section is a revelation of elegance She enters the stage and settles onto the stage left pedestal with ethereal grace. She performs with exceptional finesse and control, maintaining the grace and patience to settle into each apsara. Her steps are unhurried and thoroughly captivating. As Sam later is entangled by her own long elaborately decorated scarf, representing the Naga's tail, I suddenly remember seeing women hand-sewing the beads and sequins onto costumes for dancers while they rehearsed on a tiny rug in the burned out shell of the National Theater. The paradox of such otherworldly opulence and the reality of living and working conditions for many artists seems to match the naga's struggle to escape her origins as she tries to pull away from her own tail. The music softens and slows while Sam quietly laments that which she cannot abandon. The emotional journey clearly relies on a subtle intensity from Sam rather than the large sweeping gestures usually used to represent a weeping character in the traditional form.

In the third section, Hun Pen, a young dancer who also studied at Wesleyan University, plays Neang Amari, the Spirit of the Present. As she actively tries to avoid the three dancers who serve as her shadow by moving toward the three women who serve as the light, we see another attempt to escape one's past. Hun handles herself with a very compelling femininity in both her resistance and eventual resolution. She learns to appreciate her past as equal to her future. For the final section a group of dancers present equilibrium by depicting the deity Harihara. Harihara is said to depict both Shiva and Vishnu and symbolizes the ideal, middle path when one is able to reconcile where one comes from with where one is going.

"Seasons of Migration" finishes its US tour Friday with a performance at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California.


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