When the Old Becomes New
IN THE PREVIEW performance of Khmeropedies l& ll that began Spoleto Festival’s 35th season at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, the idea of dance as a tradition was seen as a tenuous thing. Passing it down is tricky, as the human memory is faulty and specifics may vanish in the blip of a generation; and then there is the whole issue of wanting to carry the burden of a tradition on, without the form changing, even if the world and the dancers that perform the dance feel more removed from the original sacredness of it at all. Not to mention a genocide that wiped out an entire generation of artists whose sole responsibility was to teach the traditional form, which was the case of the Khmer court dance during the years of the Khmer Rouge.
The 90-minute evening work begins with a single dancer in front of a projection of a temple statue executing the classical hand gestures of which there are more than 4000 to draw from, paired with leg movements with flexed feet and subtle shifts of the head in an elegant and contained manner. Soon the dancer speaks in the Cambodian language, taking on different roles, dialects, and ages. Loud contemporary music comes in as the dancer changes qualities to more percussive and explosive movements. Subservience changes to power—time, energy, and space become multifaceted.
The 4 beautiful and endearing dancers who perform French Cambodian choreographer Emmanuele Phuon’s work take the audience on a journey that explores what is old and how the new fits in. Primarily a female art form, there is a monkey role performed by a male who explains (with the help of subtitles) that “it is exhausting being a monkey all the time” and whose dance is full of jumps and scratches in an intriguingly comic way. The male dancer also just wants to dances with the females and ultimately performs a pas de deux in a western way while staying true to the vocabulary of the Royal court form.
Most poignant is the dancing master, performed by Sam Sathya as herself, who instructs the dancers in the practice even though they yearn to dance in current dance styles which culminate in a Cambodian Rap accompanied section. Sathya herself is pulled to the modern world as her cell phone rings and she chats during practice. In the parting image she dances alone in a solo to “Somewhere over the Rainbow” which may be where the dance form may soon disappear to.
Performances that bridge the old and the new don’t always work, but Phuon’s work delivers in the most vivid of ways. The beauty of the dance and its dancers is to be cherished as is the understanding of how the modern performer must embody the responsibility to carry it on in a new world.