The Khmer Arts Ensemble makes its Minnesota debut and its World Premier of “A Bend in the River” production on Friday, April 5, 8 p.m. at the State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis.
Presented by The Northrop at the University of Minnesota, “A Bend in the River” is a reflection on the choices we make in the heat of passion, weaving a Cambodian village tale of love, heartbreak, magic, vengeance, consequence, and redemption. It was created by National Heritage Fellow and McKnight International Fellow Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, in collaboration with two of Cambodia’s most renowned artists, this dance drama intertwines fifteen dancers, one unreliable narrator, two oversized crocodile puppets by sculptor Sopheap Pich, and eight instrumentalists and singers performing Him Sophy’s new score for a pin peat ensemble that includes an original two-level circle gong and xylophone.
Like all good stories transmitted from generation to generation, the meanings are multiple. The world is ever changing, nature a great leveler, and human choices, often made in haste, are sure to be tested. We resort to vengeance in place of justice at our peril. Crocodiles have been known to eat their young, after all.
Khmer Arts Ensemble is Cambodia’s celebrated 25-member dance and music troupe based at the breathtaking Khmer Arts Theater in Takhmao, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, an important regional resource and international center for dance training, exploration, creation, exchange, and performance.
The ensemble specializes in developing and performing the original choreography of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, in reviving and documenting works from the Cambodia’s classical dance canon and in teaching the context and technique of Cambodian classical dance worldwide.
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro says that like many Cambodians, she loves the spellbinding storytelling that is inspired by traditional folktales. Such is “A Bend in the River”, a new work that is similar to her story ballets and explores issues of morality.
“It looks at some of the many open questions that I and a generation who survived the complete collapse of civil society and who live with the lingering repercussions of that trauma face,” she said in a press release. “In this case, I ask, among other questions, ‘At what cost do we seek revenge?’”
Born in Phnom Penh, Cheam Shapiro was a member of the first generation to graduate from the School of Fine Arts after the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. She immigrated to Southern California in 1991, where she studied dance ethnology at UCLA. She is artistic director and co-founder of Khmer Arts, a transnational organization dedicated to fostering the vitality of Cambodian dance across borders.
Sculptor Sopheap Pich creates wonderfully vivid reptiles and Costume Designer San Vannary has abandoned 19th century royal regalia in favor of wholly original interpretations of classical dance costumes.
“I am often asked if Khmer Arts Ensemble is a contemporary or traditional dance company, as if the two concepts cannot coexist,” Cheam Shapiro said. “We are like any good ballet company. We train in the canon and can perform 19th century story ballets, mid-20th century non-narrative dances, as well as my more experimental contemporary works—sometimes on the same program.
Three of Cambodia’s internationally renowned performing and visual artists join forces in order to add to their culture’s rich storytelling tradition with A Bend in the River, a new dance work that reflects on the choices we make in the heat of passion.
Conceived and choreographed by Cheam Shapiro for 16 dancers and an unreliable narrator, A Bend in the River is a contemporary telling of a Cambodian village tale of love, heartbreak, vengeance, consequence, and redemption.
The work is set to an original musical score by Him Sophy, performed live by nine instrumentalists and singers, and features kinetic sculptures by Sopheap Pich.
In A Bend in the River, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro breaks with received storylines to set her work on earth rather than in heaven, and among humans and animals rather than among gods and mythological creatures.
Moha, a giant crocodile, is the antagonist and catalyst for this parable of passion and revenge. His adversary? The lovely Kaley, a young woman whose family, fearing the unknown, attacks the unsuspecting croc and are subsequently killed by it. A reclusive hermit, a charming fiancé, family, and friends are among the other characters in the story.
Sculptor Sopheap Pich has created the life-sized bamboo and rattan crocodile puppets with and within which the dancers perform, as they bring the story’s central characters to life.
To these, Cheam Shapiro adds a narrator, giving the tale an outside point of view and binding past to present. As a practical matter, this guide, who speaks in the language of the viewer (English in the U.S.A., Khmer in Cambodia, Mandarin in Taiwan), creates an interpretive bond for audiences who may not be familiar with the gestural vocabulary and references of the classical Cambodian dance form. This is also a more integrated and interesting approach than the use of surtitles.
Him Sophy’s score for pin peat ensemble, the percussive and woodwind instrumental group that customarily accompanies classical dance, replaces the standard musical themes used to accompany the dance (there are often fixed melodies for battle scenes, love duets, etc.) with original polyphonic leitmotifs for the characters. As jumping off points for the score, Sophy and Cheam Shapiro explored the relationship between music and storytelling in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. The instruments of the ensemble will include a multi-level xylophone and gong tuned to both Western and Cambodian scales, commissioned specifically for A Bend in the River.
The cast is costumed in lighter, more transparent materials to accommodate the form’s iconographic S-shaped silhouette and innovative movements rather than the heavy velvets and brocades traditionally employed in classical dance. In Cheam Shapiro’s costumes for Shir Ha Shirim—a quartet set to a score by composer John Zorn—and her recent The Lives of Giants she chose a color palate and textiles previously unknown in the dance form. Even in her more ‘traditional’ costuming for Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute, she designed new headdresses and introduced new elements and techniques.
A Bend in the River is first and foremost a spellbinding tale full of intriguing characters and plot turns. But like all good tales, the meanings are multiple. The world is ever-changing, nature a great leveler, and man’s choices, often made in haste, are sure to be tested. We rush to vengeance rather than justice at our peril. Crocodiles have been known to eat their young, after all.
Like western ballet, Cambodian classical dance is a technically complex and aesthetically beautiful, refined, and stylized form with a codified vocabulary and body line/silhouette. Both genres were nurtured in the court, and story-based dances are hallmarks of each. In Cambodian classical dance, these dramas typically take place in a mytho-poetic realm populated by gods and kings, demons, and fantastical beings. During the 20th century, western ballet makers began experimenting, seeking to extend this form’s vocabulary, subject matter, and audience. Cambodian classical dance is now undergoing its own sea change.
Tickets are $37, $48, $59. Prices do not include processing or facility fees. Single tickets are available through ticketmaster.com or by phone at 1-800-745-3000. Buy in person and save on fees, Mon – Fri, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., or Sat, noon to 3 p.m. at the State Theatre Box Office.