Heavenly Visitors


Cambodian classical dance is a refined and fragile court form; yet the fact that it has been restored after the brutal destruction of art and lives under Pol Pot is a tribute to its tenacious beauty. Ironically the style, in which women play both male and female roles, is inherently peaceful. Its principal motifs are ceremonious processions; tiny steps that move a dancer equally forward and back, negating time’s progress through space; and the moments in which the performers in their gold-embroidered garments and golden headdresses balance on one leg with the other crooked up behind, looking as tranquil as flowers nodding on their stems. Their rippling, rotating hands, fingers arched back, often seem to equivocate: this or that, maybe. . . . The gamelan, its percussion instruments augmented by a nasal flute and singing, seems robust enough to shatter them.

Drama induces faintly troubled expressions and tiny , sharp motions. In the classic battle between the water goddess Moni Mekhala (Sam Sathya) and the ogrish sun god Ream Eyso (Thong Kim Ann and Koy Sina spell each other in this masked role), the two duel by formally circling one another, retreating, and striking inimical poses. He craves her silver ball, she vanquishes him by tossing it delicately in the air and blinding him with the ensuing lightning. She not only escapes; the earth gets rain.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro created Seasons of Migration for dancers and musicians of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Influenced by her own emigration from Cambodia to America, she grafts the theme of adjusting to new ideas onto the classic vocabulary and traditions. Divinities visit earth in their usual gilded parade, but the mythic serpent (Sathya) becomes self -conscious about her tail, pleating and pulling gently at her silver train with a slight frown, before finally accepting its inevitable presence. Lovely Neang Amari (Hun Pen) seeks and finds a balance between past or shadow (three “male” dancers) and future or light (three females). Eight “men” pair up to represent not the dual attributes of an ancient creation-destruction deity but the equilibrium between them. Shapiro tells her stories enigmatically through groupings that resemble temple friezes and hesitations in the tranquil, hypnotic flow of steps that seem suspended in time. Here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, sorrow and joy, struggle and acceptance, dark and light swing together in this beautiful, ancient, reborn style.

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