Prancing Like a Primate

Art October 21, 2013 00:00

By PAWIT MAHASARINAND
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A Cambodian contemporary dance work is both a choreographic and biological study



After a week of great performances, workshops and more, the curtain came down last night at The Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay’s eighth edition of the annual “da:ns festival”. 
On Wednesday, I made my way to the Theatre Studio to catch Amrita Performing Arts' “Kmeropedies III Source/Primate”, staged as part of the “Shift” series, which aims to shifts the audience’s notions of dance by showcasing new experiments.
This new work was seen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this April, as part of the Season of Cambodia festival. The Phnom Penh-based company is Cambodia’s most travelled troupe and their two earlier works “Bach: Cello Suites” and “Ferocious Compassion” were seen in Bangkok earlier this year at “Our Roots Right Now” research forum and festival.
Seven male dancers, all trained in the classical masked dance theatre form know as Lakhon Khol –Khon’s Cambodian counterpart – entered the theatre the same way as the audience members but stopped downstage right. Here they removed their shirts, jackets and trousers and stowed them in a locker, leaving them clad in tank tops and shorts. On the white dance floor, fully exposed to us, their physical movements were inspired by those of different species of monkeys. The tightly knit ensemble’s performance was as riveting as the accompanying music scores and the audience applauded long and loud after one exhilarating sequence as the dancers took a break, coming out of their characters and sipping water from their tumblers. 
There were some traces here and there of the classical dance movements in the tradition of Lakhon Khol. Nonetheless, the audience’s attention was perhaps drawn more towards other moments, such as when the monkeys got into a fight, provoking excitement, when they mated – causing us to grin – and when one of them died and the others reacted, invoking grimaces of sadness. Some movements also reminded me of a middle-aged woman jumping up and down as she attempts to run a kite, a scene that I had witnessed an evening before in Bangkok.
“Kmeropedies III: Source/Primate” was a reminder, biologically, of human evolution and also demonstrated how research for a dance performance can be as scientific — thanks to Yale University’s Eric J. Sargis, a biology and anthropology professor — as artistic. The outcome was thus both entertaining and educational, though at times reminiscent of a National Geographic programme.
In the final scene, a dancer walked onto the stage clutching a white monkey mask that had been placed on top of the locker and placed it the head of another dancer, thus completing the connection between nature and performing art. I personally would have been happier if the 50-minute performance had demonstrated more links to the classical dance movements of the monkey characters. In its current form and taking account of the potential for misinterpretation by viewers who have no experience of Lakhon Khol, it risks being another showcase of exoticism. Foreign minds and eyes might still believe that we in Southeast Asia, notwithstanding our use of smart phones and tablets, are still untamed and primitive. 
Although French-Cambodian choreographer Emmanuele Phuon’s mission is to “develop a specifically Cambodian contemporary language in dance”, the performance begs the question of whether it is possible to focus, rather than on dance traditions but instead on contemporary issues and still be deemed worthy in the westerners’ gaze? Or do we always have to remain monkeys with smart phones?
 
The writer wishes to thank the Esplanade’s Gina Koh for all assistance.