During the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (1975-1979), under the leadership of Pol Pot, millions of Cambodians died. He was intensely concerned with the murder of artists and intellectuals and attempted to destroy Cambodian culture, which had existed for thousands of years. Dancers were one of the brutal leader's main targets; it is believed that 90% of Cambodian dancers were eradicated. In 1980, the remnants of the dancers regrouped; later that year, the School of Fine Arts reopened. Today, "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia" is a project of the Royal University of Fine Arts, which is based in Phnom Penh. The company performs under the artistic direction of Proeung Chhieng, who is also vice rector and dean of choreographic arts at the Royal University.
In its initial stages, the gorgeous costumes in which the exotic performers of "Robam Aspara" are encased immediately beguile as three beautiful ladies are seen in statuesque poses on pedestals. They represent asparas (celestial dancers). Their leader—known as Mera, a mythical ancestor of the Cambodian people—comes ever so slowly forward, and we are immediately transported to the carved figures of the Celestials of Ankor Wat, the unique temple complex that dates from 1150. Mera, interpreted by Sok Sokhoeun, embraces a compendium of figures typical of the Cambodian dance, which requires enormous control and balance. Since hand and foot movements are alien to Western eyes, they may also appear to be simple. But the hand movements in themselves, with the fingers at times flexed all the way back onto the arm, would indicate why training of youngsters begins at age six.
Those who are accustomed to the extensive fouette turns executed by ballet dancers may not be impressed by the Cambodians slowly pivoting around on one leg and then holding an extensive pose on the turning leg. But if anyone is inclined to believe that these movements are facile, let them try them themselves and then see how far they can fall. Nor would we encourage anyone to attempt those fingers extended all the way back to the arms. They might end up with fractured wrists.
Ms. Sokhoeun was soon joined by the other asparas in similar figures, which may be considered repetitious, but are studies in perception and depth that few occidentals could emulate.
In the beginning, dance in Cambodia may have been the sole art performed by women. "Robam Tunsaong," however, is the story of a hunter ordered by a king to capture a wild ox, and it affords the opportunity to see some highly virtuoso dance by two men portraying the oxen, who manage by their tactics to evade capture. Their flexibility from the knees while performing in crouching animal-like positions and runs was unbelievable. Their resiliency was matched within memory solely by the Russian folk dancers of the Moiseyev company, here recently performing as various Ukranian Gopaks.
Ourn Sophon and Sok Tong were the bravura pair emulating the oxen. Also sharing in the virtuoso aspects were Nguon Sam Ath as the Bumble Bee circling the animals, Yann Borin as Hunter and Singer, and Nou Sokha as Tiger and Drummer.
A truly unique musical interlude not seen here previously, "Solo Opakar," was offered by Nol Soboun playing a variety of reed instruments.
The second half of the program commenced with "Chhayam," a processional of raucous clowns, who come down the aisle from the rear of the theatre. When they come onto the stage, we are regaled by delightful clown acts accompanied by some robust percussion. The comedy is accented by drums, gongs, cymbals, and clackers. This is also a dance where the men display some incredible stunts. Only one woman appears with them, and she has little to do except act wide-eyed at the carryings on, flirt a bit, and generally stay out of the way.
On the other hand, "Robam Makar," a court dance, is made up entirely of women, some of whom are supposedly performing male roles. Male characters are distinguished from females by their costumes, featuring shoulder epaulettes, brocade, and pantaloons. The divine Prince Vorachhun opens the proceedings. He is joined by Moni Mekhala, goddess of the seas, and her entourage of dancers. The entire group performs an exquisite fan dance to conclude the Khmer legend.
Actually, the program was slated to conclude with "Reamker," a Cambodian version of the Ramayana, the Hindu epic of East Indian origin. But on the Aug. 25 childrens' matinee that I attended, this was omitted. Perhaps they thought it would be too much for the children to absorb on one program.
The entire proceedings turned out to be an afternoon savored by children and adults alike; it was a not-to-be-missed experience.
Sarah Skaggs Dance Arrives
Sarah Skaggs Dance's roving, participatory dance event, "Get Out of the House," hits New York City's Sara D. Roosevelt Park for four consecutive Fridays in September. "Get Out of the House" takes dance out of the traditional proscenium setting, moving it to a larger public space to reestablish ties between art and life, reshaping and celebrating dance as a shared, communal experience.
Sarah Skaggs claims that her work redefines the notion of a dance concert—and how people participate in dance—in an effort to reclaim, return, and recreate a participatory, engaging, and all-inclusive experience.
Venue: Sara D. Roosevelt Park on East Houston St. (between Chrystie St. and Forsyth St., one block east of the Bowery) in Manhattan; Performances: Sept. 7, 14, 21, and 28 at sundown (approximately 7 pm). The event is free. For further info, call (212) 924-0077.
New Carmen by La Cuadra de Sevilla
We are advised that the traditional story of Carmen will be challenged when La Cuadra de Sevilla presents Salvador Tavora's radical new look at the legendary figure.
Tavora, in 16 loosely connected tableaux, sees Carmen as a woman of character whose fight for women's rights and assumption of unpopular political positions made her a symbol of daring and dignity for her time. Tavora's great-great grandmother told him tales of her co-worker, Carmen de Triana, which have haunted him all his life and resulted in his revisionary look at her.
According to Tavora, Carmen did not capriciously reject Don José because of the arrival of another lover (as presented in Bizet's opera), but, rather, because he represented the military establishment that had just executed General Riego for supporting a progressive constitution.
Venue: City Center, 131 West 55th St., NYC; Performances: Sept. 12-23, evenings at 8 pm, except for Sun., Sept. 16, at 7 pm. (There is no evening performance on Sun., Sept. 23.) Saturday matinees at 2 pm; Sunday matinees at 3 pm; Tickets: $40-$75, available through CityTix at (212) 581-1212, or at the City Center box office.
Big Dance Theater in Shunkin
Big Dance Theater collaborates with visual artist Michael Counts and composers Glenn Branca and Cynthia Hopkins for Shunkin, directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar and choreographed by Ms. Parson. The story of Shunkin, inspired by Junichiro Tanazaki, one of Japan's modern authors, is a meditation on the nature of love, cruelty, and devotion. It follows the secret love affair of a beautiful and blind musician and the ultimate sacrifice she exacts from the man who is both her disciple and her lover.
Venue: The Kitchen, 512 West 19th St., NYC; Performances: Sept. 5-8 and 12-15 (Wed.-Sat.) at 8 pm; Tickets: $18, for reservations call (212) 255-5793; a post-performance discussion will be held on Sept. 13.
Kitchen Neighborhood Street Fair
All are invited to kick off the Kitchen's 30th anniversary season with the unveiling of the Fulton Mural Project on The Kitchen's east wall, and an eclectic, free menu of outdoor performances and interactive events. Venue: see above; Time: Sept. 8 from 2-5 pm.