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Jack Anderson

Eiko, Koma, and Cambodia

Eiko and Koma: "Cambodian Stories: An Offering of Painting and Dance"
May 19-21, 2006
Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue
Information: (212) 327-9271
Reviewed by Jack Anderson May 22, 2006

Eiko and Koma usually dance alone, rarely choreograph for others, and often concern themselves with mighty cosmic forces and archetypal patterns. Yet their new "Cambodian Stories: An Offering of Painting and Dance" has a cast of 11, and mingles earth and cosmos, history and myth, and life and art in an unusually poignant manner.

"Cambodian Stories" is a collaboration between the Japanese-born choreographers and the Reyum Painting Collective of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It came about after Daravuth Ly, who founded the institute with the late Ingrid Muan, saw a New York performance by Eiko and Koma and invited them to teach a workshop at Reyum in 2004. The experience so excited them that Eiko and Koma returned to Cambodia. The result was "Cambodian Stories," in which they are joined by nine Reyum students (a young woman and eight young men, all between 16 and 22). They are art, not dance, students, and they create paintings during the 80-minute production. But they also dance, moving with a sinuous grace that performers with far more extensive training might very well envy.

Although "Cambodian Stories" looks beautiful and large panel portraits of serene goddess-like women dominate the sides of a sand-covered stage, this is no theatrical picture-postcard. Beauty of design gives way almost immediately to factual immediacy as the performers step forward and introduce themselves and, in halting English, speak of their career ambitions, thereby implying that their production is not set in a fantasy realm. Then a large canvas is placed on the floor and dancers draw lines on it. A wooden frame is placed atop the canvas and young men dangle from it to fill in the lines on the canvas below them with colors. Their attention-commanding labors are reminders that, in a sense, all arts involve someone performing in some way: by dancing, of course, but also, perhaps, by moving a pen or typing a page or, here, by moving while holding brushes.

Chakreya So, the one female Reyum dancer, makes the first of many ceremonious traversals of the stage. The painting, a woman's portrait, is raised from the floor to face the audience. Chakeyra So crosses the stage again, followed by other students and Eiko and Koma while a taped collage arranged by Sam-Ang Sam quotes a Cambodian pop song, in English, that urges, "Take me to your heart, take me to your soul." Given these dedicated young artists, who could resist such an invitation?

A male soloist appears, the incredibly lithe Setpheap ("Peace") Sorn, who lets one sculptural pose melt almost imperceptibly into another. All the young people's solo dances feature lifted arms suggesting hope, aspiration, or supplication.

At one point, Eiko, too, makes an upraised hand seem a precious treasure. But, moments later, dancers begin to falter and stagger, looking weak and emaciated, and forcing historically-minded theatergoers to remember that during Pol Pot's genocidal dictatorship, millions of Cambodians were starved, tortured, or worked to death. Such tyranny is never specifically mentioned, yet its shadow looms over the production.

The stage resembles a killing field. The portraits of the serene women fall to the floor. Chakreya So stretches out motionless as a corpse. But a new paint frame is placed at the back of the stage. The men clamber on it and start painting bright colors on a black backcloth, all of which hints that a reasonably happy ending may be approaching. Yet it will not be a facile resolution. Eiko and Koma writhe, as if exhausted, Koma groaning like a wounded animal. But the mural is finished, showing another goddess-like figure, stretched out with long flowing hair. The dancers limp offstage.

When the men return, they sink to the ground. The backdrop falls, revealing a fresh mural behind it, this one a row of serene women's portraits. Dancers slowly stir and paint a final mural: an ambiguous image, probably a reclining woman and, possibly, an idealization of Chakreya So, but a shape also suggesting a mountain rising above a sea and forest. The dancers support one another and struggle back to life.

Life is indeed restored, but with effort. The conclusion leaves several performers paint-spattered.

Yet better paint-spattered, than blood-stained.

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