Khmeropedies I & II @ BAC
In 2004, I facilitated a residency in Phnom Penh for Dance Theater Workshop’s Mekong Project. Several artists from the Mekong Delta region (Yunnan Province in China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand) gathered with a group of Asian Americans and Cambodians for 3 weeks. Based primarily out of Delphine Kassem and Mann Khosal’s Sovanna Phum shadow puppet theater, the group met to share and develop ideas and working relationships together. There were no immediate outcomes expected though artists showed some of their own work and developed brief collaborations. Among those participating, there was a young dancer Chumvan Sodhachivy (commonly known as “Belle”), who had trained in the giant role in the classical khmer repertory at the Royal University of Fine Arts, but was already trying to do something different during Sovanna Phum’s weekly Friday night free-for-all performances.
Tonight, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, she revealed how far she has come in that pursuit as a member of the troupe of dancers working with Brussels-based choreographer Emmanuele Phuon, who I interviewed earlier this week. The work begins with Belle facing upstage and a scratching, blast of German experimental band Einsturzende Neubauten. This seemed to serve as a shorthand way of saying “just so you know, this won’t be a typical, classical, Cambodian court dance.” As Phuon detailed her own experiences as a dancer with White Oak being an educational process from the inside out (as she performed in the repertories of the likes of Yvonne Rainier), I found myself considering the great value of this work in providing these dancers, especially ones like Belle and Chey Chankethya and Phon Sopheap, with the opportunity to begin to understand the potential explorations and possibility of expressions in movement from within their familiar traditional vocabularies and against noticeably foreign aesthetics that are unlike those commonly imported via Karaoke lounges or YouTube.
Phuon divorces the traditional forms from their outer trappings. Here there are no masks, no costumes that take 5 hours to get sewn into, almost no distinguishable khmer music of any kind. The cultural signifiers are of the body, both the movements of the bodies and the actual bodies performing. This stripping down alone would make it noticeably contemporary in the context of classical Cambodian dance, but it is the various explorations of level, facing, speed, thrust, and repetition that compel me as a viewer. Several solos throughout the program reveal fascinating initial investigations. I could have stayed with just the physical work, however, the work had to carry its own context with it. The simplistic structure of young dancers who wish to do something new versus the older, master teacher, performed by Sam Sathya, trying to impart the value of beauty is probably necessary for certain audiences who may not understand how deeply the master/acolyte dynamic runs in the culture of Cambodian classical dance. Note: when Princess Boppha Devi, Cambodia’s first royal “ballerina,” was Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, certain classical dances (the Apsaras, as I recall) were not allowed to be altered in any way. When it’s illegal to chance a dance form, where does innovation begin?
This 1,000 year old form survived the Cambodian holocaust, but may not withstand the onslaught of globalization. However, the earnestness and narrative are bearable when the dancers are moving. There are many interesting connections and deconstructions at work in the physical tale and I forgive the performers their earnestness, knowing what the living and working conditions are for most of them at home. Knowing that anyone capable of seeing this show or reading this post have little to complain about and could take a lesson from these artists. Knowing that we live a very good life, comparatively. Remembering that Belle was the last surviving child in her family, after all 12 of her siblings died under Pol Pot’s genocide. Thinking that perhaps progress or contemporary shouldn’t have to always mean ironic or wry. Noticing that the final solo by Sam Sathya is haunting. At that moment, the true narrative of a dancer who was one of the first generation trained after the fall of the Khmer Rouge only to see it systematically destroyed by pop culture was truly moving and absolutely genuine.