Tuesday, October 05, 2010

“The Lives of Giants”: Cambodian dancers hit the stage for first OnStage performance of the season

04 October 2010
By Jake Landry
The College (Connecticut College, USA)

When watching a piece performed by the Khmer Institute, co-founded by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, it’s easy to become tantalized by the graceful dance and melodic atmosphere that the Cambodian dance creates. Enjoying the performance is easy, but it is difficult to write a review.

The talent and grace of the Khmer Institute is undeniable and even someone with an untrained eye, such as myself, could tell that I was viewing years of practice and tradition. I cannot critique the performance further than to say it was a beautiful visual and auditory experience that left me with a sinking feeling of regret for the characters and a deep curiosity of Cambodian culture.

What struck me about this performance were two facts that seemed contradictory: the first was that this was a Cambodian dance ensemble, and the second was that they were performing a Hindu story. The little I remembered learning about Cambodia involved the Khmer Rouge, a terrible era in Cambodian history from 1975-1979 in which an estimated 1.7 to 2 million people were put to death in the “killing fields.”

The Khmer Rouge believed that they were going back to the glory of the Khmer empire, and in many ways tainted the word “Khmer” for any that are only familiar with modern Cambodian history. My first goal was to set out and discover the connection between Hinduism and Ancient Cambodia.

In his recent book Stories in Stone: the Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of the Khmer Empire, John Burgess discusses his most recent findings of the Khmer Empire. He estimates that the empire began around 802 AD and continued for six centuries, ending around 1431 AD. The empire was spread throughout Laos and Vietnam. The empire was strongly influenced by Indian Hinduism.

In many of the major cities of the empire, they built great temples. Burgess describes their efforts as, “trying to build cities in stone so wonderful that the gods would come down from heaven and live in them.” This passion in their religion carried over to their daily lives.

As described by Barbara Landry, a second-year seminary student at the Tree of Life Temple, “Daily life and practices were about communing with the Divine, the Divine wasn’t something separate but instead was infused in daily life.”

Traditional Khmer dance was a common way to commune with the Divine. This passion has lived on through Cambodian culture even through the occupation of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge set out to erase this history. During their occupation all dance schools were closed and dancing became illegal.

By 1979, when the first school of dance reopened in Cambodia, Shapiro was eager to enroll. During this time in Cambodian dance there was an underlying urgency to perform internationally. It took the dancers less than two years to begin touring internationally, which was a defining moment in Cambodian dance history. From there Shapiro has had an extremely successful career, leading up to her most recent piece, “The Lives of Giants.”

As the main lights cued that the performance was beginning the band took the stage. Five men dressed in traditional Cambodian attire entered towards the back of the stage bowed to the audience and sat down. The lights began to dim as the beautiful melody and reverberating percussion lightly began to fill the room.

At the back of the stage there was a blue glow directly behind five tall lily pads. The giant Akaeng Khameaso was laying on the ground near center stage and became visible as the main lights came on. From the right side of the stage entered Uma, who slowly made her way over to the giant where they greet in a warm graceful manner.

This opening scene foreshadows the inevitable end of the giant that is to come. After Uma exits, two groups of four beautiful woman, each dressed in identical attire, take the stage and begin to taunt the giant. For his whole life, these women, who represent angels, taunt the giant and make his everyday existence a challenge. The giant must find a way to free himself form this torture so he calls on Preah Eyso, the form that Shiva is currently taking, and pleads for some type of relief. Shiva grants the giant a powerful magic finger. At first, he is afraid of his new power, but soon he is bothered by the angels once more.

Unable to resist the urge to use his new power, he breaks the angels up into many pieces. The giant realizes his potential and becomes drunk with power, taking several minutes to celebrate, and then he takes the throne in the middle of the stage representing his desire to take the throne of Shiva. There is great pressure from the fallen angels for Shiva to destroy the giant, but he fears for his own power and decides to flee in the opposite direction. Uma looks to Vishnu for assistance, but his only answer is to destroy the giant.

Tension begins to build as Uma pleads for the giant’s life, but Vishnu knows that the giant cannot be allowed to survive with such power. He allows Uma to attempt to change the giant one last time and promises that if she fails he will destroy the giant. What ensues is a final epic scene in which Uma seems to turn the giant back towards the light of morality, but Vishnu is not convinced and takes the giants finger and points it inward. During the last moments of the performance, the giant promises that he will return in the next life even more powerful, and as he dies, Uma laments the dominance of violence over compassion.

One cannot help but consider the proverb “Does Art imitate life, or does life imitate art?” when observing the expression of archetypal ideas and struggles as portrayed in this powerful dance. The universal concepts of morality and power continue to be acted out on the human stage, and this beautiful form of expression through dance not only serves to entertain, but also to inspire us to explore the impact of these ideas in our own life and world today.

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