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Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute

by Robert Johnson
October 14, 2007
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800
Where: The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street
When: 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, October 12-14
How Much: Tickets are $25 Sunday evening and $44 all other times. Call (212) 242-0800 or visit www.joyce.org.
NEW YORK — -If everything is beautiful at the ballet, what can one say about classical Cambodian dance? An ancient school of movement so refined that most other forms of theater seem gross in comparison, Cambodian dance still glitters with the gold of mystic ritual, and follows the slow, luxurious rhythm of palace life.

As presented by the Khmer Arts Ensemble, from Phnom Penh, who brought their wondrous production of "Pamina Devi: A Cambodian 'Magic Flute'" to the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, the Cambodian school of dancing is so much more than entertainment. It is a sanctuary redolent of jasmine and incense.

None of that, of course, prevented the savagery of the 1970s, when the revolutionary Khmer Rouge slaughtered the palace dancers. Since their choreography was not notated, the murdered artists took many masterpieces with them. Now Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, a dancer of the post-war generation who directs the Khmer ensemble, desires not so much to reform her country's classical repertoire as to replace a portion of what was lost.

In stepped festival director Peter Sellars with a plot. As part of Mozart's 250th birthday celebration, in 2006, Shapiro translated the story of "The Magic Flute" into the sinuous and dreamlike vocabulary of Cambodian dance. With its supernatural setting ruled by Sarastro and the Queen of the Night (here known as Preah Arun Tipadey and Sayon Reachny), this plot was not a stretch for artists accustomed to playing apsaras and warrior princes. The tale of an estranged father and mother fighting over their child remains gripping. Women dance all the roles. And the Cambodians' "pin-peat" orchestra supplies its own music: gongs, xylophones, drums, and oboes surround the vocal lines with shimmering effects.

Shapiro has added her own touches. Instead of fleeing from a terrible Serpent, the hero (Preah Chhapoan/Tamino) tangles with a hungry Krut bird. At a moment when the battle between Preah Arun Tipadey's trident-wielding soldiers and the devotees of Sayon Reachny seems likely to overwhelm the atmosphere of tranquility, the bird-catcher Noreak/Papageno employs a handy device called the Gong of Consciousness, which makes the whole disturbance simply vanish.

Most significantly, in this version the eponymous heroine, Pamina Devi, whose abduction by Preah Arun Tipadey's agent sparks her parents' quarrel, proves to be more sensible than either of those feisty and ill-tempered consorts. She is smarter than her rescuer, Preah Chhapoan, to boot.

After Preah Arun Tipadey condemns the supposed indecisiveness and gossip of the female sex, and before her mother presses a knife into her hand ordering her to murder her father, Pamina Devi makes a plea for sanity arguing for harmony between men and women. When Preah Chhapoan becomes too rapt in his initiation ceremony to notice that a serious problem has arisen, Pamina Devi tells him off.

You go, girl!

Super-titles (a bit faint) help tell the story, but the dancing needs no translation. Its beauty fascinates. As their gestures curve along winding paths, the dancers' bodies rise and fall smoothly. These mythical characters appear so light that, sinking, they seem caught in a momentary downdraft. A moment later, they float upward with effortless buoyancy. While one foot stays solidly planted, the other curls at the toes and arch creating a corrugated silhouette that makes their contact with the earth seem temporary.

Characters glide slowly through the drama, yet rarely do they hold completely still. During the solo where Sayon Reachny relates the story of her daughter's abduction, her devotees and even the captive Krut bird echo her movements. The whole stage picture responds by moving in gentle waves, subtly alive.

The hands, which always betray labor or idleness, are especially stylized. They curl far back from the wrist, or stiffen with fingers pinched and splayed; and they travel in fluid spirals. The Cambodians do not dance with fingernail extensions. Yet each hand gesture has the enforced elegance of a lady pushing buttons on the phone with two-inch, frosted tips. When a villain wishes to take Pamina Devi prisoner, he grabs her by the fingers.

The Cambodians remind us of the impact that a physical impulse can have, especially when it appears within a fantastic setting. Since the characters do not abandon artificial postures even when they touch, an emphatic movement seems extraordinary. When Pamina Devi stretches out her arm, attempting to escape from her abductor, her yearning gesture suggests a wild flight. A simple push (rejecting the villain) or the sudden tug of separation, when Preah Chhapoan is wrested from her grasp, become moments saturated with emotion.

Yet for all the twists and turns of the story, "Pamina Devi: A Cambodian 'Magic Flute'" holds back from melodrama. The Cambodian dancers create a world so perfectly ordered that violent passions can only be allusions. These characters inhabit a celestial plane in which even the sorrow of losing a child cannot tarnish the atmosphere of radiant joy.

How marvelous that this paradise has been regained.
Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute. By Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. In The Kingdom of the Sun. Courtesy Khmer Arts Academy.

Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute. By Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. In The Kingdom of the Sun. Courtesy Khmer Arts Academy.

Photo © & courtesy of John Shapiro


Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute. By Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. In The Kingdom of the Sun. Courtesy Khmer Arts Academy.

Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute. By Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. In The Kingdom of the Sun. Courtesy Khmer Arts Academy.

Photo © & courtesy of John Shapiro

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