The dancers move slowly, revolving without friction, as if underwater. When they walk, they glide forward regally, their heads level. They keep their crystalline balance as they draw one leg up behind them in a flying pose, their hands and feet blooming open like lilies.
Cambodian classical dance developed its refined style in the height of the Khmer Empire. These Apsaras, or celestial dancers, can still be seen carved in the ruins of Angkor Wat, their curving forms swaying from the crumbling walls. But this ancient and beautiful dance was nearly obliterated by the brutal Khmer Rouge’s mass murder of artists and intellectuals in the 1970s.
Now a new generation of Cambodian artists is breathing life into this art, including National Heritage Fellow Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, whose dance drama A Bend in the River, presented by Northrop and performed by the Khmer Arts Ensemble, receives its world premiere in Minnesota this month. Using 15 dancers and several large puppets, Shapiro’s choreography, at once classical and contemporary, showcases the ancient technique alongside modern stagecraft to retell a village fable about love and justice.
The Twin Cities Cambodian community, one of the largest in the United States, looks forward to the performance. Vuthy Pao, president of the Cambodian Student Association of Minnesota, says this performance is the first by a Cambodian national dance ensemble in the Twin Cities, and it represents “a way to pass down traditions” to second-generation Cambodian-Americans.
Just as Angkor Wat now belongs to the people of Cambodia and the world, the descendants of the celestial dancers now perform their royal dance for everyone.
April 5. State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-625-6600, northrop.umn.edu