Cambodian court dance has always been a spiritual activity – dedicated to the ancestors and especially the gods, whom the dancers reflect in their calm elegance. But there is a fine line between serenity and inertness, and in a rare visit to New York as part of the Season of Cambodia, the Royal Ballet crossed it a few times too many.
Choreographed by Princess Norodom Boppha Devi, the 80-minute Legend of Apsara Mera argues for the centrality of dance in the creation not only of the nation, back when celestial beings skimmed the earth, but also of the universe. The first act describes the birth of the apsaras, after which the court dancers largely model themselves. These heavenly creatures emerge from a sea of milk that warring gods and demons churn up. The second tale relates the union of the most beautiful apsara, Mera, and Prince Kambuja, whence Cambodia sprang.
Oceanic battles and nation-sized passions are the stuff of theatre. And though this lilting idiom does not lend itself to grand theatrics, the repeated gestures and phrases can act like a rising tide. With Apsara Mera, however, the story tended to get lost in the repetitions so we were unprepared for the big dramatic moments.
More bothersome still were the lapses in rhythmic pulse, inherited perhaps from the princess-director herself, who as an impossibly beautiful star in the 1960s liked to blur the beat. Sometimes the 21 lissom dancers at BAM echoed the tilt of shoulder and head with heel and hip in a swaying harmony, and sometimes the postures grew as still as stone.
The women’s poses and gestures (women play both male and female roles in Cambodian dance-theatre) were always visually pleasing, though. Each independent finger of their expressive hands stretched so far back in the wrong direction that it seemed to grow a new joint. So too the wrists, elbows, ankles and toes. The sharp angles somehow lent the dancers a serpentine grace – beneath the gold brocade of pantaloons and tunic and the gleaming winged helmets.
Loveliest of all was the live pinpeat music: the soft, round melodies, the harmonies of women and men’s plainchant, the sudden huddle of beats when an episode rushed to a close. If only the dancing had achieved such fullness.