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