Dancers bring 'Spirit' to campus

by Christopher Moore | 9/26/01 5:00am

By the fall of Pol Pot's treacherous reign over Cambodia (1975-79), a quarter of the nation's people, the Khmer, were dead. The purges of the intellectual and cultural participants in the country left no more than 10 percent of the artists alive. Dance, a millennia-old oral and apprentice-based tradition, the primary ritual and entertainment outlet for the royal courts and provincial villages alike, came to a complete halt, for four silent, stagnant years.

The durability -- the necessity --of the medium could not be halted, though, during that artless time; stories tell of the almost simultaneous liberation of Cambodia in early 1979 and the remaining artists reconvening to dance once again.

To watch "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia" last night in Spaulding Auditorium, the swimming of bodies in currents of music, half a month after Americans stood still, in silence, halted, provides the most invigorating exercise. Even a dance not so familiar liberates us for an evening, then afterwards, from the tyranny of tension and solemnity and furrowed brows -- all requisite postures, but postures too heavy to go long without stretching.

"Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia," presented by the widely-touring Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, does not distract one's mind from the daily tragedies with strong narrative arcs or slap-shtick humor, with facial expressions of agony and acquiescence or vertigo-inducing gymnastics. The large company (38 stage-perfomers), everyone marvelously sewn into bespangled costumes and topped by towering crowns, persuades one's attention to itself through its deliberateness and its royal court sensibility.

Drums, xylophones, woodwinds (Cambodia has a striking diversity of them), and singing drive the action sequences and frame the languorous pieces. The music becomes nearly subliminal, though, behind the intense visual concentration given over to the dance. The dancers' limbs curve and bend in exquisite moves, slow like tai-chi, only a few degrees at a time. In "Robam Apsara," the first act, a golden deity tries different angles with her fingers, and hands, and arms, and torso, as if her body amazed her, but she didn't want to wear the amazement out by making any hasty, grandiose sweeps. She revels, ever so modestly, in beauty, in form.

In a middle work, the most refreshing one, a folk procession of drummers and comedians make merry down Spaulding's aisles, laughing with utmost gaiety, nearly levitating in their silly one-up-manship and trivial wooing. This colloquial routine, without a story-line, contrasts perfectly with the other works of dreamy tableaux, as a most reticently turned kaleidoscope.

The elegance of the performance belies its majority constitution of "royal" works. Slow and stately, surely the crystalline dances are the jewels of the company. For an audience interested both in what most Khmer watch in their home towns and in feeling lively, it's a bit sad that more "folk" performances weren't included. Any sadness would have disappeared, turned into retrospective delight, fortunately, on reflection on the delicate balance between high art and that art which makes you higher.

This sensitivity touched most of the audience. Most of those who appreciate art on a regular basis have felt nervous, or uncertain, in the most recent days. Can one appreciate the passive spectacle, the ethic-less product, the foreign treasure? Should one? Or should one re-ask the questions: are spectacles passive, are products moral or otherwise, can anything of value be called remote and of "distant lands?" When we wish to get enjoyment and uplift from art, should we look toward mindless pleasures -- or are mindless pleasures so trivial and unnecessary now? -- or should we look toward the best artistic creations of all man -- or does that try simply to deny human nature?

"Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia," combines haute with jouissance; even more, it instructs us on the invisibility -- thus dependability -- of art in the times and ages of crisis.