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`Cambodian Stories' affirms a lust for life

April 07, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Trained in their native Japan by the pioneers of the dance idiom butoh, the wife-and-husband team of Eiko and Koma soon became masters of intuitive, poetic, neo-Expressionist duets. But their "Cambodian Stories" makes them prominent but not dominant in a mesmerizing group spectacle subtitled "An Offering of Painting and Dance."

Showcasing 10 members of the Reyum Institute for Arts and Culture in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, this interdisciplinary, 90-minute piece came to the Martha Knoebel Dance Theater at Cal State Long Beach on Wednesday and moves to REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall tonight.

It begins with mundane spoken introductions, then introduces energetic collaborative activity: nine bare-chested young men using a low wooden scaffold to support themselves while painting a portrait on a large canvas lying on the stage floor -- a floor that's carpeted in golden sand.

Soon a pop song ("Take Me to Your Heart") begins to play, a young woman named Chakreya So steps slowly across the forestage, and the upward stretch of arms that will become the evening's primary dance motif is seen for the first time.

Everything changes: The Reyum painters become dancers, and then bring in a higher scaffold to turn the black backdrop into another portrait. The 10 panels flanking the stage (giant paintings of Cambodian women) collapse and then are conjured up in another backdrop behind the newly painted one.

Chakreya dances at greater length, her body twisting slowly and her hands gliding up into the light as if she's a plant growing toward the sun.

You begin to see the piece as a life cycle involving periods of work and private contemplation -- plus events beyond anyone's control. Chakreya even seems to die in one sequence, mourned by some of the men and Eiko, who stretches alongside her in the sand.

Every so often, a brilliantly gifted, impossibly slender dancer named Setpheap Som appears, and as you watch him stretching upward or bending down into the sand, you see dance transform him into an abstraction of supple, sculptural purity.

Eiko and Koma do have a brief duet near the end -- the simplest touch somehow momentous, as always -- but mostly they interact with the others, serving as distinguished elders in a community of young artists.

The couple, now in their 50s, conceived and directed "Cambodian Stories," and it reflects their concern for essential statements and processes.

This time around, however, they seem less focused on the pain of living -- even if you interpret the collapse of those panels as a reference to the catastrophic destruction that took place in Cambodia's recent history.

Yes, cataclysm happens, but also rebuilding, and for every moment of communal work there's another devoted to personal quests, as when the Reyum dancer-painters stand isolated in consciousness, eyes closed, limbs drifting as if searching for connection.

Ultimately, the work represents a ritual of affirmation in which the Cambodians declare their readiness for whatever life has in store -- and their vision of the human body as one more scaffold for the creation of art.


`Cambodian Stories'

Where: REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., downtown L.A.

When: 8:30 tonight and Saturday,

3 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Price: $24

Contact: (213) 237-2800 or

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