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Lori Ortiz
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Guggenheim Museum - Peter P. Lewis Theater
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John Zorn and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro— "Shir Ha-Shirim"

by Lori Ortiz
November 24, 2008
Guggenheim Museum - Peter P. Lewis Theater
Works & Process
1071 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10128
212-423-3587
Performed by Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers Chao Socheata & Noun Kaza, Sao Phirom & Mot Pharan
Works & Process doyenne Mary Sharp Cronson sent Cambodian classical choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro a recording of famed, new music composer John Zorn's "Shir Ha-Shirim," (Song of Songs.) The material wasn't already on her to-do list— Hebrew text and atonal vocals— but the music's middle-eastern lyricism isn't so far afield.

Both she and Zorn had seen Auguste Rodin's erotic 'minute' sketches of Cambodian dancers, and that created a common reference point. In fact, Shapiro's teacher's teacher, Lokhun Mit, had met Rodin when she was invited to the 1906 Paris Exposition, now notorious for its exotic spectacles. She came back to tell of strange sights: a zoo, electricity, and cars. Shapiro clarified— her teacher's teacher thought it strange to see animals in a zoo. Did she feel like an attraction too?

Cronson, who has seen more dance and music than most artists, arranged a contemporary East meets West, November 24, 2008 at the Guggenheim's Lewis Theater. A panel discussion neatly separated two performance elements.

Many New Yorkers saw the incredible Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers at the Joyce or at Fall for Dance and the Zorn music was performed earlier this year at Abrons Center. In the Cambodian traditional narrative form, every gesture can be translated literally. But the Zorn suggested a different approach. Cronson created a link— an introduction, and an opportunity.

First, Zorn conducted a group of musicians in selections from his "Sefer Shirim shel Shir Ha-Shirim" (Songbook for the Song of Songs,) for harp, vibraphone, cello, bass, and percussion. "It's a world premiere," he said as he sat in a chair wearing a clean black hooded sweatshirt and camouflage pants. He marked the beats with his hands; the right fingers and thumb clacked like a human castanet, and the left pinky and forefinger extended toward the proposed sound or solo. Then the musicians took over with song, while Zorn listened.

In the spirit of W&P, he had them restart one section, making sure they were all "working from the same chart," downtown style. Carol Emanuel's gorgeous harp melody was isolated in two solos. Erik Friedlander's cello was her second. He echoed her with a final, resonant vibrato. Then, bass and vibraphone had jazz jam style solos.

After their thirty-minute concert, Shapiro and Zorn discussed the process with Ralph Samuelson of the Asian Cultural Foundation. Shapiro said her commissioned dance is based on traditional vocabulary, but that she deferred to the music's mood and tempo and that the dancers are "summing up" with a less literal gestural narrative. "I pushed the framework. I opened the envelope."

Four Ensemble dancers performed on the stage to Jeremy Fogel and Ayelet Rose Gottlieb reading the Hebrew text. The narrators stood aligned on the house-right ledge followed by a chorus of five women who backed them up with whistling sounds, and atonal harmonies of single notes like do do ah na, bak obak, ak. Zorn conducted from the pit. Fogel did not have the gutteral Hebrew pronunciation but made up for it with his sensual body language as an impassioned Solomon. His reading was more musical. Gottlieb's pronunciation was true, and she embodied the text as the more pragmatic, female character. She got into the groove, swaying with Fogel and the music. Her inability to see both Fogel and the dancers was a shortcoming.

The dancer's hyperextended fingers are often splayed and highly articulated, with their feet also hyperflexed, and one leg raised behind from the knee. Walking with jutting posteriors in a demi-crouch, they simulate different heights, evoking gender and hieratic position. Body type, the different pinning of their silky costumes, and even the parting of the hair create two distinct roles among the four female dancers, and still, there are individual differences. In double duets, two roles are distinguished, two aspects of each couple. Male and female? But even more than gender and sexuality, abstract concepts like The Land (of Jerushalem,) love, and duality are suggested.

At the beginning and end of the central act, the 'male' sits on a stump armature like Rodin's "Thinker" and leads the shorter, 'female' out between the wings.

In the last act the quartet holds a sculptural formation, twice. Before the finale, the couples turn in a round promenade. Their intertwined arms create two thick, central stalks reaching to the heavens, while travelling their circular path around centerstage. Swathed in billowing fruit colors— purple, orange, and gold silk— the kinetic bunches look like fruiting bodies.

Finally, touching forefinger to thumb, at least six arms and probably eight from some viewpoints, extend outward like a Hindu deity's. The dance realizes the interdependence of eroticism and spirituality that can be seen in Eastern stone sculpture.

This looks fresh and new, 'original,' to the Western eye familiar with modern dance and ballet. The structure is harmonious and ornate. Shapiro's dance definitely has some original solutions even if it is based in the traditional Cambodian lexicon.

Afterward, the experience gels in the mind. The instrumental, the vocal, and the dancing on stage erases borders and continents for that hour. Said Zorn in the panel, "Every moment is a precious moment in time." If you think about it, why shouldn't artists representing two nations with tumultuous, troubled histories get to know each other. Other memorable collaborations, for example French choreographer Jerome Bel and Thai traditional dancer Pichet Klunchun, have come of admiration, initiative, or necessity. Today's artists lead migratory lives. Opportunities just have to be present.
Mot Pharan and Sao Phirom (front left to right), and Noun Kaza and Chao Socheata (back left to right) of the Khmer Arts Ensemble in 'Shir Ha-Shirim.' Photo courtesy of Khmer Arts Ensemble.

Mot Pharan and Sao Phirom (front left to right), and Noun Kaza and Chao Socheata (back left to right) of the Khmer Arts Ensemble in "Shir Ha-Shirim." Photo courtesy of Khmer Arts Ensemble.

Photo © & courtesy of John Shapiro


Mot Pharan (left) and Sao Phirom. Photo courtesy of Khmer Arts Ensemble

Mot Pharan (left) and Sao Phirom. Photo courtesy of Khmer Arts Ensemble

Photo © & courtesy of John Shapiro


Noun Kaza (left) and Chao Socheata. Photo courtesy of Khmer Arts Ensemble

Noun Kaza (left) and Chao Socheata.
Photo courtesy of Khmer Arts Ensemble

Photo © & courtesy of John Shapiro

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