SEVEN young men prance onstage, jumping and climbing on each other. They move gracefully on their hands and feet like monkeys on the move, periodically letting out melodic howls.
The performance is an inventive reinterpretation of traditional Khmer dance. The dancers have spent the past three weeks perfecting their routine at the Circus Centre and the Department of Performing Arts, for Khmeropedies III: Source/Primate, a new dance performance piece produced by Amrita Performing Arts set to go onstage in Phnom Penh on March 1 and New York in April.
Choreographer Emmanuele Phuon said she decided to focus on the role of the monkey in traditional Lakhaon Kaol dance for the final instalment of three shows which blend modern and traditional performance.
The monkey plays an integral role in Lakhaon Kaol, which gets its narrative from the Reamker, a Khmer adaptation of the Hindu Ramayana epic poem. Among the Reamker’s prominent characters is Hanuman, a deity in monkey form who helps the prince Rama rescue his wife Sati from the wicked Ravana.
Since Hanuman is depicted as having a large army of monkeys at his disposal, a large ensemble of monkey characters often feature in Lakhaon Kaol productions. Consequently, monkey behaviour proved to be a source of inspiration for early choreographers.
“The masters probably looked at how the monkeys behaved and moved. They took some movement and infused it in the role, and made it something very codified [in dance],” Phuon said.
Phuon enlisted the help of a primatologist in order to incorporate monkeys and apes into the dance routine. As a result, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and lemurs make an appearance.
“How can we infuse Western ideas into something classical and traditional? Can it evolve using Western ideas? That is the theme,” Phuon said.
Khmeropedies gets its name, as well as inspiration, from the three Gymnopedies piano compositions written by French Erik Satie in 1888.
“Satie’s idea was to do three exercises on the same theme, and this is the same thing,” Phuon.
The past two Khmeropedies also broke down choreography conventions, introducing Western classical music and rap.
Nget Rady, one of the production’s seven dancers, said that he likes the approach behind Khmeropedies III.
“We’ve learned a lot about the monkey world, and we hope we can combine this into our classic dance.”
Rady and his troupe will be among 125 Cambodian artists flying to New York for the Seasons of Cambodia art festival. Organised by Cambodian Living Arts, the festival will showcase contemporary Cambodian art.
Khmeropedies III goes on stage at the Department of Performing Arts, located behind Sparks Entertainment Centre at 12304 Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, at 6:30pm, March 1. Tickets are $2 and can be purchased at the door or from Amrita Performing Arts.