writers on dancing


The Lay of the Last Minstrel

Season of Migration
Classical Music and Dance from Cambodia
featuring dancers and musicians from the Royal University of Fine Arts/ Phnom Penh
[presented by Cal Performances]
Zellerbach Hall
Berkeley, California
April 29, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

The dances of Thailand, Cambodia, Java, and Bali—i.e, the Indonesian/Indochinese dance forms—have very strong family resemblances; they are like sisters with very similar features and very different personalities.

All of them are like "living statues": the positions are exquisitely molded, the transitions are magnificently smooth and display the kind of technique it takes a dancer many years to command. All use a great deal of turn-out in the legs and cherish a diamond-shaped opening of the legs; they use many levels of plié, so subtly exploited that the dancer can go down onto one knee, or even into a side-saddled sitting posture and back up to standing so subtly you wonder if you actually saw that. The torso is sinuous, in constant subtle movement. The face has a sweet unchanging cat-like smile, borne on a delicate neck that moves like a bird's. The hands open like flowers, with the fingers curling outwards like the petals of the lotus.

We have in nearby Santa Rosa a magnificent practitioner, Charya Ream Burt, who has established an academy. Her performances are mesmerizing in their focus and clarity of detail (she received an Isadora Duncan Award, and fully deserved it, for outstanding performance a few years ago).

But her Cheam Burt's work has only begun here, and the accomplishments of her students do not begin to match the performances of Gamelan Sekar Jaya, the extraordinary Balinese-American company based in Berkeley, which performs here many times a year and is received in Bali as the only company worthy of presentation alongside a real Balinese company in the annual festivals.

So it was a fascinating thing to see a company of Cambodian classical dancers from Phnom Penh dance in Zellerbach Hall—on the same stage where a decade ago the royal family of Yogjakarta (Java) danced the Bedoya and only a month ago a group from Bali performed a Balinese contemporary dance ("Cudamani," reviewed in these pages in the April 11, 2005 issue).

OF all those to be seen in the Bay Area, the Cambodian is both the least familiar to the general public, and the mildest in its general effect. They deliberately play down contrasts. Every dancer wears a towering crown. The tone is quiet, hypnotic, withdrawn; the costumes, though spangled with glittering stones, are all in tones of gold, ranging the whole evening no farther than from green-gold to red-gold (and a single demon turned up in a sort of all-over topaz). Though there is strict emploi, with large-boned dancers portraying ogres, the medium-physiqued as hero-gods, and the fine-boned as goddesses, in fact ALL roles are taken by women. Which means that the heroes are magnificently turned-out— but there is no testosterone on stage.

To my mind a melancholy sweetness is the salient feature the Cambodian dance. This is court dancing, from a culture that was almost completely destroyed, and we must be grateful to have it. One may wonder if before Pol Pot's regime opened fire and tried to kill everything that came from the past, whether the dance was actually this mild, elegant, restrained. There is an elegiac quality to everything they do—from the presentation of the foot, to the lifting of the leg behind in the ravishingly beautiful high attitude (foot flexed, toes flexed even further, with the heel actively reaching toward the small of the back) which is their equivalent of a 180 degree penchée-arabesque. This is a gesture they use sparingly and to great effect. One wonders, if Russian ballet had come to the west only through Fokine or Pavlova, if only they had survived the cataclysm to tell us of what had been lost, if the effect might not be like this.

Perhaps Cambodia will have a punk, acrobatic generation to come.

In the meantime, their attention to certain basic values is enormously satisfying to see—finesse is all-important to them, the elegance of the transitions, the demeanor of calm, continuously fluid movement is paramount and showy vulgarity is avoided. This of course is true of court dance everywhere; restraint combined with elegance matters greatly in the royal dances of west Africa just as much as it did in St Petersburg (where single pirouettes were standard in Preobrajenska's day).

The spectacle took two parts. Before intermission they showed us a delightful version of a classical dance from the Angkor days (which has not been shown publicly since the 1960s), depicting the conflict between the god of thunder (wielding an exquisite silver hatchet) and the goddess of lightning, who periodically tossed and caught a priceless jeweled ball—which when she caught it drove the thunder god to blindness. This dance resembled the Javanese Bedoya, both in its utterly stylized geometry and in its use of jeweled props, and in the importance of the wrists. At one point in the evening, a pair of dancers placed their tender wrists together and made an arch, and then turned in this position (as in an allemande turn in square dancing). It was an exquisite moment, wrist to wrist, one I will never forget.

After intermission came an ambitious allegory using the classical dance language to depict the experience of a Cambodian in exile—arriving in the new world full of wonder, then going through feelings of estrangement, adjustment, and finally reaching balance. It was fascinating to see the geometry of the traditional floor-patterns, imagery, and myths forms deployed in this way, though I didn't feel the emotions come through as clearly as it seemed the choreographer had hoped. It's a problem with direct parallels in classical ballet—for example in "Cinderella," how do you choreograph the "Seasons" divertissement so as to make it clear that these kinds of energies are gifts being bestowed on our heroine? Even as talented a choreographer as Ashton failed to make the dances entirely expressive.

The most successful section of the Cambodians' "Seasons of Migration" was stage two (frustration), arranged as a solo for their ballerina, Sam Sathya: she is an exquisite creature whom audiences anywhere would love. In the allegory she is the mythological serpent Neang Neak, who in her new surroundings becomes uncomfortably aware of having a tail, which she tries to get rid of but (since it is part of her nature) she can't. In the dance, her tail was represented by a glittering train, studded with flashing brilliants, that extended several feet behind her like a flamenco dancer's Bata, and the dance involved twists and turns which entangled her feet in the train—and she kicked it out of the way in ways that (mutatis mutandis) wittily brought la Tanya to mind. Sathya has a fabulous ease of plié, she excels in ascent and descent and could genuflect into a deep knee bend, raise her back leg into the Cambodian attitude, and tear at her train with a stylized muted pathos which was entirely worth all the pains it us took to reach the theater. The allegory was fulfilled, and indeed Sathya's extended dance examined the many ways in which someone who discovers conflicting feelings about hoping to fit in—feelings of regret, loss, loneliness, the stubborn abiding differences of birth and upbringing and values—which will make you forever an outsider in the new world. It ended with Sathya posed in the equivalent of the "sunburst" moment from "Apollo": elevated on a platform kneeling, with the back leg in that Cambodian attitude, arms extended with the hands in full lotus-bloom, the back hand poised gently on the back foot. The effect was like Garbo's facing the unknown at the prow of the ship at the end of "Queen Christina."

Berkeley was the company's last stop in the United States, and curiously it was the glowing New York reviews that brought out many of the rather small audience who saw the company here. (Leigh Witchel reviewed this same show in last week's DVT.) But those who came received them with cheers, and it was touching to see the performers, after they'd bowed their "Namastes" to us, raise their hands and wave goodbye as the curtain slowly fell.

“Seasons of Migration” was choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who lives in Los Angeles, for the company from Phnom Penh; one wonders if she and Charya Cheam Burt are related—Burt and Shapiro seem to be the surnames of their husbands. There are so few who have survived to tell this tale—they are probably all sisters in some way.

Volume 3, No. 17
May 1, 2005

copyright ©2005 Paul Parish



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last updated on May 1, 2005