Khmer Arts Ensemble "A Bend in the River"

by Kristen Van Nest

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 10, 2013

The Khmer Arts Ensemble
The Khmer Arts Ensemble  (Source:Khvay Smanang)

"A Bend in the River" is based on traditional Cambodian folklore, exploring issues of morality, specifically, as put by the performance's choreographer, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, "At what cost do we seek revenge?"

The story is about Kaley, a young girl who is eaten (along with her father, mother and three brothers) by a giant crocodile, Moha, at a bend in a river near a Cambodian village called Kompong Vongkiri. Although Kaley is the main character, the story is told through the narration and her mother's point of view. Prior to her demise, Kaley promises to return in her next life as a larger and stronger crocodile to avenge the death of her mother.

Next, Vichek Moni, the local healer, finds a large egg in the reeds. The egg hatches into a crocodile, which Moni names, in honor of the original, Kaley, not knowing it is actually Kaley reborn. Moni teaches the creature how to transform into a human and swallow 'him' temporarily in order to easily†transport the healer across the river to aid injured villagers. Once older, Kaley reveals her true identity to Moni, explaining her purpose of revenge. But Moni encourages Kaley to move on and enjoy her new life.

One day, Kaley is playing in the river when she sees another crocodile and falls in love. The other crocodile invites her back to his cave, but in horror, she finds her scarf there. Realizing the crocodile is Moha, she kills him, despite loving him deeply. In shock, she heads far down river, resting in distress on a sandy beach. There she sees her fiancť from before her death. Transforming into a human, they are in love and dance together until it is revealed that she is actually a crocodile and the village responds in vengeance.

"A Bend in the River" is part of "Season of Cambodia," a festival across New York City reviving Cambodian Art, much of whose history was destroyed one generation earlier during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). In an effort to erase the past, the radical Communists viewed artists and dancers as a threat to the nation's future, resulting in the death of about 90 percent of the artistic community in Cambodia during that period.

According to Toni Shapiro-Phim, a dance ethnologist at Bryn Mawr College, only 10 to 20 percent of royal dancers survived, which amounts to about two dozen people. After the regime's fall from power, they attempted to rebuild oral traditions taught through thousands of generations.

For Shapiro, the Khmer Rouge had a personal impact. In 1975 at age 8, she lost her house, father and two brothers. For her, the female crocodile's anger represents her own and those of many others of her generation. In an interview with "The New York Times" she states, "the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy classical dance and Cambodia, but they failed. We revived it. This is revenge."

As storytelling is not always consistent from generation to generation, Shapiro portrays this through Kaley's mother's dictation: "I'm employing a narrator in order to mix things up a little bit, especially as my narrator is not so reliable."

Kaley's mother consistently shares the story through her perspective, trying to improve her perception in the eyes of the audience. For example, on Kaley's decision to avenge her mother she states, "I pleaded with Kaley to take back her pledge. After all, who wants a crocodile for a daughter-even after you're dead.

"The Khmer Rouge tried to destroy classical dance and Cambodia, but they failed. We revived it. This is revenge."

But like her father, Kaley refused to listen." When Kaley falls in love with Moha, her mother insists that she must kill him anyway and does not understand her remorse: "I can't imagine why, but Kaley was ashamed and horrified by what she had done." Her tone through the piece is very matter-of-fact.

Unfortunately, the narration was too amplified and in an accent, often played over loud background music. Thus, it was very easy to miss an explanation key to the plot. In addition, it was hard to tell what the mother's opinion was versus her daughter's. For example, did Kaley want to avenge only her mother, as opposed to her entire family?

Cultural differences also made it more difficult for a Westerner to connect emotionally. For example, in most Western performances, love is shown through gazing deeply into one another's eyes or long embraces. Affection, in this play, was much more reserved. Love was shown in dancing next to each other, Kaley standing in front of her fiancť, their arms entwined, but bodies side-by-side.

You were told they were in love, but you weren't shown, in a Western sense that this was the case. The closest cultural signs of affection were between Moni and Kaley as a crocodile. Moni would hold the crocodile's jaws in her arms as a daughter holds a child. But Moni's gender was confusing. As with all of the cast, Moni was played by a female. Her motherly actions contradicted the narrator, who claimed Moni was a man. In addition, no efforts were made to hide the actress' female form†in Moni's costume.

Furthermore, in many Western ballets, the main character's costume is different, through cut or color, than supporting characters. In this ballet, the costumes were slightly different, but not enough to easily distinguish as a character ran across the stage. It was easy to confuse who was who.

The costumes were decidedly contemporary, using only silk as opposed to brocades, jewels, and metal temple-hats, to show the fluid movement, accentuating the natural setting. They were designed by San Vannary, who used original interpretations of classical dance costumes instead of sticking to 19th century royal regalia.

The set and props were all beautiful and contemporary. Behind a silk screen was the outline of the band, playing the first new music in modern history for the pin beat ensemble in heavy percussion, including xylophones, gongs, and drums. The crocodile was made of woven pieces, designed by Sculptor Sopheap Pich, whose work is currently on exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A tunnel, built of IV tubes strewn together, hung from the ceiling and draped across the floor to represent the river.

Although the performance had a high quality aesthetic, the dancing itself was not as synchronized as seen in most ballets, often with displaced space between dancers. The dancing lacked the ability to tell its own story apart from that of the biased and unreliable narrator.

"A Bend in the River" runs through Apr. 14 at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue. For information or tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit www.Joyce.org.

Kristen Van Nest is a journalist living in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @KristenVanNest or check out more of her writing on theater, business, and travel at kristenvannest.com.