Monday, 18 May 2009

[THE WEEKENDER] Khmer artists yet to hit their stride

Eiko and Koma’s loyal fan base applauded ‘Cambodian Stories: An Offering of Painting and Dance’ despite the glacial pace of some of its sections

Monday, May 18, 2009, Page 13

Cambodian Stories: An Offering of Painting and Dance opened with five young Cambodian men, clad in short sarongs, walking on stage and lining up with their backs to the audience in front of a brightly painted cloth. A young woman, Charian So, then painted a “T” on their backs in water in a cleansing ritual. When she was finished, all six turned to face the audience, and introduced themselves, some in English and some in Khmer. They then turned and pulled down the drop cloth, revealing a stage lined with paintings of Khmer women in traditional dress, and the performance began.

The young men (who ranged in age from 20 to 25) carried out a wooden scaffold, which they placed upon a piece of canvas laying the floor, brought out pots of paint and positioned themselves on the scaffold and began painting. The Japanese performance artists Eiko and Komo appeared, their faces painted a grayish white.

There were slow passages by one or more performers across the stage; there was an awkward, shy duet by the young lovers, Setpheap (Peace) Sorn and So, who dies shortly thereafter. Two of the men pick up her body and placed it upon a small mound of dirt, while Eiko performs a drawn-out mourning ceremony.

But even as Eiko and Koma conducted an anguished duet, rebirth was underway, symbolized by the young painters splashing the large black backdrop with yellow, white and blue, clambering about a large black scaffold. By the end of the show, the backdrop shows a woman laying with her arms outstretched, floating on a sea of waves or clouds, under a moonlit, starry sky.

In many ways, the show reminded me of the Japanese Butoh troupe Sankai Juku, who were here last August: Eiko and Komo’s white faces and arms, the awkward, contorted movements, the glacial pacing of some sequences. I couldn’t help but wonder what the students at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Pehn had thought back in 2004 when Eiko and Komo first showed up at the school to teach their Delicious Movement workshop.

That the Cambodians are painters, not dancers, was evident and despite being veterans of several performances, they still looked uncomfortable on stage. The only time they looked relaxed was when they were painting and when they sang Take Me to Your Heart, which turns out to have been a very popular song several years ago and one the Cambodians chose themselves.

The show had originally been created with nine Reyum students or graduates, but the other three could not make the Taipei performances (one just got married and started a family, another had to stay home to work, the third is on a scholarship to Japan) and I couldn’t help but feel that the production must have been a bit more dynamic when there were eight painters moving about the stage instead of five.

That the show was about Cambodia’s loss and about transformation, I got, but I’m afraid the more spiritual connections escaped me. The show wasn’t my cup of tea, but there were many in the audience enthusiastically clapping and shouting “bravo” at the end. Eiko and Koma have a loyal fan base in Taipei, having visited here three times before. Far more interesting was the question-and-answer session after the show, with Eiko, Komo, So and Sorn explaining the meaning of some of the Cambodian songs and how the show was created. The affection Eiko and Komo have for their young performers was clearly evident.

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