For centuries, Cambodian court dancers by the hundreds lived as the king’s private all-female dance troupe—the little, pretty ones playing the women, the taller, stronger-faced ones the men; a few larger dancers took the roles of giants. After 1930, men assumed the monkey roles crucial to stories drawn from the Ramayana.
With their slow elegance, brocaded costumes, steeple-shaped headdresses, and flexible fingers that made flowers blossom in the air, the royal dancers were obvious targets for the Khmer Rouge’s purge of artists and intellectuals. Between 1975 and 1979, the majority of them perished. The few surviving masters had to rebuild the classical forms bit by bit.
Emmanuèle Phuon, who has appeared with Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project and choreographers here and abroad, is half-French and half-Cambodian; she studied Khmer dance as a child. With the help of the Phnom Penh–based Amrita Performing Arts—a nongovernmental organization that focuses on both preserving Cambodia’s traditional performing arts and encouraging creativity—she collaborated with three classical dance artists to create Khmeropédies I and II.
The remarkable two-part event is no eclectic hybrid, with arabesques and the like grafted onto Cambodian steps. Utilizing postmodern strategies, Phuon and the dancers enlighten us about the style, while investigating how private emotions and more relaxed contemporary customs might take it in new directions. Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies, which figure in the recorded score (along with traditional music and compositions by Ravel, Debussy, and the Cambodian rap group Tiny Toones), exercise the pianist’s fingers; this creative venture nudges Khmer antiquity into a respectful workout.
The dancers wear no crowns; T-shirts top their wrapped practice pants. They show us the beautiful poses denoting the apsaras, the celestial dancers of myth who appear in the carvings of Angkor Wat. Standing calmly on one leg, a faint smile curling the ends of their mouths, they raise the other bent leg behind them until the sole of their foot forms a little table. A related position, done kneeling, refers, I believe, to kinnaris, half-human, half-bird divinities. And they have many wonderful, elegant ways of crawling—their hands curving back uncannily, their fingers telling of a tranquil landscape. But those hands can also form fists, and the dancers’ grounded stances belie their apparent delicacy.
Although Khmeropédies I, a solo for the tall, exquisite Chumvan Sodhachivy, begins in front of a slide that shows, in extreme close-up, the surface of an ancient, weather-pitted statue, and the accompanying sound suggests rocks tumbling down, the mood is serene and reverent. That is, until she begins to amuse the gods by telling a story. We don’t know what she’s saying, but she plays five different characters in conversation or conflict with one another (amazing!). There’s a sweet girl, maybe a bit of a hypocrite, and an old man with a coarse voice and a bad cough. One person wonders just where another got that bracelet. Sodhachivy mimes being yanked back and forth, sometimes by her long hair. She maintains a dance pose until a force knocks her into rolling on the ground.
Khmeropédies II is illuminated by an introduction (read on tape by Christian Zaremba) and intermittent projected translations. Sam Sathya—a master female dancer, choreographer, and teacher—gives Sodhachivy, Chey Chankethya, and Phon Sopheap a warm-up in the classical technique, chanting while they run dutifully through their exercises. But small variants seep in. At one point, Chankethya bends to lay her face against Sopheap’s thigh (physical contact in itself is an innovation). Sopheap, a monkey dancer, gradually falls into the attributes of that character—waddling, scratching himself, jumping, somersaulting. He tells us that he thinks the women (still moving ceremoniously) have it easy, then gives an engaging lec-dem on traditional monkey moves.
In one fascinating duet with Chankethya, he keeps switching fluidly and subtly between acting as her dignified partner and playing the monkey, without breaking the unity of the form. Also unusual in terms of Cambodian tradition is a trio for these two and Sodhachivy that involves a variety of evolving group poses and maneuvers. Sodhachivy and Chankethya launch into unconventional solos—the former shrugging her shoulders and twisting her torso, the latter (goaded by the Tiny Toones) becoming wilder, covering ground, and not ladylike at all.
As if to remind us that Phnom Penh keeps pace with the modern world, Sathya wanders through, talking on her cell phone, and slides reveal a bustling city. Yet all four performers keep returning to the tradition they honor. In the end, Sathya dances meditatively alone, her gestures floating atop chains of tiny tiptoe steps, while a strange, deep voice sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” above an electronic stew (the Berlin band Einstürzende Neubauten). When you think about it, it’s not all that incongruous.
At villagevoice.com, read about Peter Martins’s premiere and the State Ballet of Georgia at Jacob’s Pillow