A woman stands alone, in prayerful reflection. Behind her, the projected image of weathered, speckled stone: an extreme closeup, perhaps, of the statue of an ancient deity. Then the roar of stone crumbling, rocks crashing down. Much that was once solid and upright has given way. In this handful of moments which begin Khmeropédies I by French-Cambodian choreographer Emmanuèle Phuon, the artist sets in motion the first of two explorations of loss, renewal, reverence, and memory.
Most of this solo piece, performed by Chumvan Sodhachivy (Belle), unfolds in contemplative silence. Classical Khmer dance themes mingle with modern sensibilities as Belle rolls, tumbles, and glides through poses and gestures with the graceful centeredness of a tai chi artist. A narrative emerges as she begins to offer stories for the god’s amusement and while we may not understand her words, no translation is needed. Five different characters emerge, each with a distinct voice and attitude, all talking, laughing, arguing and carrying on among themselves. The pace of this work might falter in lesser hands, but even as it draws on the audience’s patience in places, it invites a recognition that silence and stillness are not always a prompt to rush in, filling the absence of distraction with yet another activity. This unhurried journey may prove hard going for some but, if so, they will be relieved to find no danger of that discomfort in what follows.
The focus of the ensemble piece is the polar opposite of the solo. Where the first drew us into a private world, the second presents us with the lively commotion of a dance studio class. Here, teacher Sam Sathya and her real-life students Chey Chankethya, Phon Sopheap, and Chumvan Sodhachivy mix it up with an eclectic selection of music, colorful slides of Phnom Penh street scenes, and an ongoing debate among them on the roles of tradition and innovation. Choreographer Phuon and her dancers throw themselves and a heap of everything else into this piece. Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies shares the stage with Cambodian rap group Tiny Toones. Maurice Ravel rubs elbows with Berlin band Einstürzende Neubauten.
Charged with pulling all this and her students together into line, Sathya cajoles and chides them for what she insists is laziness and a lack of dedication to their ancient art. We learn through projected translations that Sopheap, watching the ladies practice, is fed up with the division of labor in traditional Khmer dance roles. While they have an easy time of it with what he sees as their languorous, gentle dances, he is “killing himself” with the role that tradition has relegated to males: the monkey dancer. He goes on to demonstrate, hilariously, all the elements of true monkey-ness: leaping, waddling, a dozen variations on scratching himself monkey style. (He is careful to share all this with us on the sly, well out of sight from his teacher’s stern gaze.)
It’s not all rants and reproaches, however. Once Sathya leaves the studio to attend a call on her cell phone, the kids fantasize about dancing just for the sheer joy of it. Some of the most raucous and lyrical moments of the performance come out of this daydreaming in motion. Here the dancing shifts kaleidoscopically from old to new, tradition to innovation and the true spirit of Phuon’s quest for a renewed and recalculated Khmer style emerge most convincingly. This is daring and heady stuff that is trying to extend — not replace — the classical forms, a notion confirmed when Sathya finishes out the performance with a sublime classical dance set to an eerily industrial take on “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” by electronic music-makers Einstürzende Neubauten. It all works so curiously well that you come away believing Phuon is really on to something. Maybe even something just a bit magical.