Emmanuèle Phuon

June 24, 2010

Emmanuèle Phuon
Baryshnikov Arts

Center, NYC
June 24–26, 2010

Reviewed by Siobhan Burke


Chumvan Sodhachivy in
Khmeropédies I. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy BAC.


It’s a tricky thing, trying to transform an ancient art into a contemporary one. Attempts have ended in many an awkward fusion, where old and new seem more hastily slapped together than organically entwined, diminishing rather than enhancing each other.

In bringing a Western theatrical eye to traditional Cambodian (Khmer) dance, French-Cambodian Emmanuèle Phuon, a former member of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, has avoided such missteps. The Brussels-based choreographer’s Khmeropédies I & II may be thematically underdeveloped at times, but simplicity can create a solid foundation for bolder exploration.

Considering the politicized history of Khmer dance, one can understand Phuon’s delicacy in excavating this strictly codified movement language. A court tradition dating back more than a thousand years, the form was all but extinguished during the Khmer Rouge of the 1970s, then pieced back together by a small group of surviving dancers in the wake of that totalitarian regime. After its brush with extinction, attempts to meddle with the art remain controversial, particularly among Cambodia’s older generations.

In part two, for four alluring performers, Phuon takes that generational tension as her subject, putting instructor and students onstage together. (The sublime Sam Sathya is the real-life master teacher of the two other women, Chey Chankethya and Chumvan Sodhachivy at Cambodia’s Royal University of Fine Arts.) Through a patchwork of traditional movement, contemporary duos and trios, and a tentative foray into hip hop, Phuon tells a story of Khmer dancers-in-training searching for a freer form of expression (after their teacher wanders offstage to answer a bright pink cell phone).

Toward the beginning, Phon Sopheap, the only guy of the bunch, rehearses the leaping, somersaulting “monkey role” (one of two types of roles reserved for men in Cambodian dance). Meanwhile, Chankethya and Sodhachivy shift through gentle, statuesque poses in unison, keeping count aloud in mesmerizing voices. When one of them says playfully (in Khmer, with an English translation projected behind them), “I’ll show you how men and women can dance together,” they all launch into a frisky, weight-sharing pas de trois to the plunking of Ravel’s String Quartet in F. The dialogue remains thin throughout, but there’s also something refreshing about its innocence.

The opening Khmeropédies I, for Sodhachivy, plumbs more mysterious artistic depths. Bouncing between character roles (she speaks in Khmer, without translation), the soloist tells what the program notes call “a story to amuse the gods,” who would likely be just as riveted by her dancing. Crouching, but keeping her torso upright, she glides across the floor using her knees and the balls of her feet, which are as supple as her limber, backward-bending palms. Her urgency and agility are those of a graceful warrior. Hopefully this sense of visceral drive appears in more of Phuon’s future work.