I wanted to look again at monkeys for a contemporary dance
At the door of the Lyla Lagoon Sport Center, an empty building hidden at the back of a garden court, choreographer Emmanuelle Phuon welcomes her audience.
On August 26, the elegant 44-year-old Khmer-French woman unveiled Khmeropédies III, an all-male contemporary dance show centered around the role of the monkey, one of the four principal characters in classical Khmer ballet.
The result of a six-week workshop with seven male dancers, Khmeropédies III is a twist on the traditional Cambodian ballet formula, where nearly all the roles, (except the monkey), are played by women.
Instead, the male dancers in Phuon’s show take centre stage, performing an adaptation of the epic Hindu poem The Reamker, starring the monkey god Hanuman and his simian army.
“For this piece, I wanted to look again at the natural monkeys as a new departure for a contemporary dance,” she explained.
To achieve this, Phuon worked with a primatologist from Yale University in the United States, Professor Eric Sargis. Over two weeks they studied the behaviour of chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos, scrutinising their stances and walking rhythms with the aid of documentaries and a visit at the Phnom Tamao Zoo, outside Phnom Penh. Sargis then demonstrated the gestures to her students, introducing new dance moves they soon replicated.
Perhaps dancing with controversy, Phuon said Khmeropédies III is also a balletic response to the creationist debate, with the choreography intended to show the audience how closely monkeys are related to humans.
In the dancing room, which has a capacity of just 50 people, space is at a premium – but a mix of expats, Khmer dancers, relatives, dance enthusiasts and onlookers packed in last Friday..
At 6:30pm, the light softens and the show starts. Seven dancers wearing gym clothes arrive on stage.
Assembled on both sides of the stage they begin to undress, until they are clad only in shorts and tank tops. Emmanuelle says she planned this “in order to show that they are humans playing monkeys.”
Soon the body transformation starts. The dancers crouch and walk, dragging their arms along the floor like a monkey, mouths in an O shape, all in complete silence, before starting to run rapidly in a diagonal line across the stage uttering monkey cries.
These movements are extremely physical and require specific training that Khmer and Thai ballet dancers learn, starting at the age of six.
“It’s a very interesting work because in traditional dance, they have to learn the same movement by heart – in contemporary dance they are free,” said Phuon.
“Cambodian dance is sometimes very two-dimensional, in the sense that it involves a lot of poses and doesn’t make use of space so much. It’s a bit like looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs. In contemporary dance, performers have to use the whole stage, and it is the movement that is important, not the pose.”
Khmeropédies III quickly unfolds in eight sequences, designed by Singapore-based dramaturge Howngean Lim.
After an initial birth sequence comes childhood. The dancers peel off and line up opposite one another, before mirroring the gestures of their partner, as if each monkey was looking in a mirror.
The dancers then pass into adolescence and start gyrating in a primitive dance accompanied by a percussion rhythm, fighting and attempting to dominate the other dancers on stage.
The next sequence – grooming and playing – makes the children in the audience laugh. But the giggles cease soon after, when dancers enter into a ritual of death. One lays down on the stage and pretends to stop breathing, while the other monkeys pay their tribute one at a time, smelling and caressing the prone dancer.
At the end of this sequence the monkey comes back from the dead, and in a frightening white mask he begins a final dance of rebirth where he turns into the monkey god Hanuman.
The show ends with a thunder of applause. Most of the audience stays in the room after the performance ends, feeling the need to talk about what they have just seen.
“I really liked it”, said Anders Jiras, a Swedish photographer in the audience. “It’s the best show of Emanuelle Phuon I’ve seen. It is very integrated. The monkeys are international but in the same time, very Cambodian. And with all this energy!”
Chi Lina, a 19-year-old audience member, called the performance “strange.”
“I have never seen a dance with only boys, and they look so similar to monkeys. But I liked it,” she said.
She is not the only one to be deeply shaken by the performance. Belle, a famous classical Cambodian ballet dancer who collaborated with Phuon for Khmeropedies I, confides that she cried during the death sequence.
“There was something which really connected us to these monkeys,” she said. “In Cambodia, some people think that contemporary dance is a crazy thing and that it destroys our traditions. That’s false. It’s another way to express ourselves. We can do something new, but, we stay Khmer.”
This is what is important to Phuon. “The dancers learned to unlearn, in order learn a different language,” she told 7Days.