Hypnosis and humor: Emmanuelle Phuon’s Khmeropédies

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2010 by David St.-Lascaux


Chumvan Sondhachivy (Belle), Phon Sopheap and Chey Chankethya in Khmeropédies II. Photo by Anders Jiras.

Hypnosis and humor: Emmanuelle Phuon’s Khmeropédies at the Baryshnikov Arts Center

June 24-26, 2010

By David St.-Lascaux

When the eupygous and full-black-chevelured Chumvan Sodhachivy (Belle) opens Emmanuelle Phuon’s Khmeropédies in white satin pajamas, back to the audience, in classic Cambodian dance pose, to the sound of German avant-garde band Einstürzende Neubauten, there is the immediate premonition of choreographic magic to come. Indeed, the beginning of Khmeropédies I, the program’s first piece, is a formal, mystic rite of prayer. Belle, lithe and muscular, slowly turns, first a quarter and then three. The music stops, she supplicates in blessed silence, her monolog to the Unseen Absent Presence (perhaps herself) a perfect contrast to her stylistic movements. Next she “dances” on the floor, at tangent to her vertical embodiment, in humbled adjuration, repeating the movements in supine horizontality. Resuming bipedal posture, Belle spins slowly, a mermaid in an ocean of air. Changing pace, she sits cross-legged and tells the gods a story (we are told), most charming in its incomprehensibility and enthusiastic, gesticulating humor, as she takes on different characters. Then, like the story, Khmeropédies I ends.

The program’s name, Khmeropédies, is a neologism based on the words “Khmer,” which refers to the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia as well as their language; and “Gymnopedies,” from soi disant “gymnopedist” and “phonometrician” composer Erik Satie’s ekphrastic, ambient “Trois Gymnopedies” (1888), referring to the romantic notion of an Attic dance festival. Khmeropédies II opens with this highly memorable and recognizable piece, as surtitles provide prolog in oneiric, cosmological terms: the conflict between the sons of the sisters Aditi and Diti (a deep dive here – basically Good v. Evil). As Khmeropédies II opens, Sam Sathya, solo, evokes a narratrix or apsara (one of the divine female beings created out of the paleomordial churning of the allusive “sea of milk”). Sathya, limber fingers flexed backward and singing a capella in timeless Khmer as she flows liquid through the space, is next joined by Belle, Chey Chankethya (Kethya) and Phon Sopheap, and the gymnopédie is on. Together, the women are apsaras, or cranes, or bodhisattvas, their movements transcendental, mesmerizing. To Sopheap, this is entirely too serious, and he breaks it up with humor. “The women have it so easy,” his surtitle translates as he asides the audience. “Being a monkey is hard work…. You wanna see the monkey role?,” he asks. “Lots of ways to scratch.” He scratches his shoulder and a couple of less mentionable places, he somersaults in forward and reverse, he cartwheels, he walks on very short legs to the delight of an audience caught off-guard. Symbolically, of course, Sopheap isn’t just any monkey: He’s Hanuman, the Monkey Paradigm, King of the Monkeys, beloved creature. And so he is, lending levity to an otherwise mostly intensely concentrated program.

After an “experimental” pas de trois by Belle, Kethya and Sopheap incorporating the music of the humanitarian arts organization Tiny Toones, founded by returnee Tuy Sobil (KK), the program closes with the return of the Teacher, Sathya. She first chastises the other three for youthfully, misguidedly attempting to modernize classical Cambodian dance. She dances stage left, exemplary, as the others imitate at first. Ultimately, the company melts into a harmonious whole to Einstürzende Neubauten’s über-subtle interpretation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the applause of a cortically massaged audience.

It should be noted that the members of Phuon’s company have poignant personal pedigrees: Sathya a major presence in Cambodian dance, and real-life teacher to the others; Kethya helping to support her family; Belle the only living child of thirteen, and avoider of bad-luck star fruit; Sopheap recently teaching at university for $720 per annum. The initiative to enable Cambodian dance may be supported by making a donation to Amrita Performing Arts.

The combination of classical and contemporary Cambodian dancing with classical and contemporary world music was seamless and splendid; Robert Henderson, Jr.’s lighting unobtrusively ideal. Phuon’s narrative choreographic couplet deserves an even larger audience than the full house the BAC provided; one looks forward to more from her and her ethereal dancers.

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