The Khmer Arts Ensemble at Zellerbach

31 Oct

The Khmer Arts Ensemble appeared at Zellerbach at a Sunday matinee early in October dancing “The Lives of Giants”, choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro; she also was responsible for the lyrics and musical arrangements.

The entirely female ensemble, was accompanied by four traditional musicians plus a singer, handsomely costumed by Merrily Murray-Walsh. “The Lives of Giants”, traditionally danced by women, is a Cambodian extract from the Hindu epic The Ramayana, regarding a Giant who is given a boon but turns into a menace, soothed only by Uma. Uma’s desire to ameliorate the tense situation the Giant’s arrogance has fostered is ignored by Visnu; he dispatches the Giant, foretelling further violence rather than compassion.

Many years ago when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was prime minister of Cambodia, he brought his daughter Bupa Devi, as I recall her name, with him on a visit to San Francisco. The Asia Foundation helped to arrange a comparatively brief performance at what is now Herbst Theatre, giving San Francisco its first glimpse of a regal professional from the land of Angkor Wat, and the extraordinary stylization of hand and foot gestures with their Indian classical antecedents outlined in the Natya Sastra.

Fast forward to the early twenty-first century; the Bay Area dance community received in its midst Charya Burt, trained in Cambodia in its classical tradition. Burt has appeared several times at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and earned an Izzie, [Isadora Duncan Dance Award] for Individual Performance in 2002, sharing honors with Joanna Berman and La Tania. What Charya provides San Francisco audiences are brief excursions into the sedate and elaborate technique of Cambodian classical dance tradition; palms vertical to the wrist with fingers arched backwards, forming leisurely mudras while the arms execute Arabic like linear arabesques, the feet cocked, bent knees, and swift little pattering steps.

Charya Burt also has undertaken adaptations, from a Cambodian snippet based on Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” to musings on being an immigrant. At least one experiment was commissioned by World Arts West’s Ethnic Dance Festival where performance slots are limited to twenty minutes.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and Charya Burt are sisters and have appeared together in the Bay Area. It is my understanding Cheam Shapiro has returned to live in Cambodia, and though experimenting, she chose this traditional tale to tour the United States under some heavy supporting organizations focused on Asia.

“The Lives of Giants” was a ninety minute drama performed without intermission. For all the expertise and skill demonstrated, this American is not sufficiently attuned to this sub-equatorial dance form to appreciate or be riveted by the experience. It is my loss, undoubtedly, but, having been beguiled by Charya Burt’s presentations, there is something to be said for programmatic adjustments in lengths and intervals.

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