A Bend in the River, Joyce Theatre, New York – review

A Bend in the River delivers on Cambodian choreographer-director Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s long-held faith that her native classical dance, like ballet, is powerful enough to adapt to the times. Opening the citywide multi-arts Season of Cambodia, direct from Phnom Penh, the dance-drama fashions not only new words from the existing lexicon but a new story from a folktale of love and crocodiles. A Bend in the River starts off simple and comic and builds with surreptitious ease into a meditation on revenge that reflects painfully on modern Cambodian history.

The stirring hour-long piece gains from the choreographer’s dual fluency in modern theatre and her country’s ancient court dance. In its native setting, Cambodian dance hardly needs to lay out the story because the audience knows these set pieces based on sacred text – plus, the songs offer narrative signposts – so the viewer is free to focus on the dancer’s interpretation. Here Cheam Shapiro kindly provides a narrator. Him Sophy’s score, magnificently realised by a pinpeat ensemble upstage, signals shifts in scene and mood as effectively as ever: time passing peaceably under sweet, untroubled gongs or streaked with sorrow in the lamentation of an adenoidal horn.

As for body language, the dance honours the conventional swayback and exquisitely articulate hyperextended fingers and arms, though the hands of dancers playing the crocodiles are often busy with the pieces of sculptor Sopheap Pich’s rattan reptiles. It takes the whole hour for this hindrance to pay off.

More immediately gratifying are the subtle displacements of conventional moves. When docile daughter and treacherous mother assume the lovers’ pose, the baroquely angular embrace takes on a sinister cast. And the signature sideways lilt of feminine roles has burgeoned into roiling turns, as if the characters had been cast upon turbulent waters.

A Bend in the River’s ending marks its most radical departure from tradition. Cambodian dance-drama can go on for days, replete with epic battles, but no one ever dies. This dance concludes with our heroine, the crocodile-girl, strewn about the river (gorgeously imagined by Pich as a translucent woodcut). This last time we wait in vain for the body to re-form. No gods – no Apsaras or divine monkeys – inhabit A Bend in the River, only fallible mortals and history, which, like a river, stops for no one.

Until Sunday, http://www.joyce.org

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