Friday, October 12, 2007

Pamina Devi: Khmer legend of fine art

Mozart Tale With Accent of Cambodia

Pumtheara Chend as Pamina Devi at the Joyce Theater. (Photo: Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times)

Dance Review | Pamina Devi

October 11, 2007
The New York Times (USA)

“Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute,” a new work by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, unfolds like a silent film, taking such gradual, measured hold that by the time it’s over, you can’t help feeling as if you’ve crossed over to another world.

The story, a retelling of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” is a celebration of youth, love and enlightenment that places its title character between her estranged parents. Unable to abide by either’s rigid ways, she discovers, more through honor than rebellion, that she possesses enough fortitude to carve her own path.

Performed by the 32 dancers, musicians and singers of the Khmer Arts Ensemble of Phnom Penh at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday night, the 90-minute production was commissioned in 2006 by Peter Sellars for a festival in Vienna. Tender and faintly campy in the sweetest sense — as when glimmers of irritation flicker across the performers’ faces — “Pamina Devi” is an exotic journey enriched by subtle political undertones.

All of the dancers are women, even those playing male roles; their jeweled costumes give splendor to their highly articulated feet and sinuous arms and hands, in which supple fingers curl backward to extraordinary effect. Even though Ms. Cheam Shapiro’s Cambodian tale, told with English subtitles, is occasionally dense — navigating the names practically requires sketching out a family tree — the staging and characterization isn’t nearly as opaque.

In the dance-drama, Pamina Devi, portrayed by the delicate Pumtheara Chend, is abducted by Thornea (Sok Sokhan) to the dismay of her mother, Sayon Reachny, the Queen of the Night (the wonderfully imperious Sam Sathya). After the queen and her devotees liberate Preah Chhapoan (Kong Bonich) from a krut, or garuda bird, he promises to rescue Pamina Devi. Armed with a portrait of her and a magic flute, he travels to the Realm of the Sun, ruled by the young girl’s pompous, controlling father, Preah Arun Tipadey (Chao Socheata).

Ms. Cheam Shapiro’s lyrics, translated from Khmer, can be unintentionally funny. (After Preah Chhapoan gazes longingly at Pamina Devi’s portrait, his subtitle reads, “Between the two of us, we would produce the most perfect children.”) Yet they don’t dim this production’s vibrancy. From the percussive, tangy music to the powerful bodies encased in gold, “Pamina Devi” is something of a quiet spectacle, and its message is freedom.

Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute” continues through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, at 19th Street, Chelsea; (212) 242-0800 or

'Magic Flute,' Cambodian-Style, Dazzles in New York Dance Debut

Dancers take part in a performance of "Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute" by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro in this undated handout photo. Performances will take place through Oct. 14 at the Joyce Theater in New York. Photographer: John Shapiro/Khmer Arts Academy via Bloomberg News

Dancers take part in a performance of "Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute" by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro in this undated handout photo. Performances will take place through Oct. 14 at the Joyce Theater in New York. Photographer: John Shapiro/Khmer Arts Academy via Bloomberg News

By Robert Hilferty

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Decked out in bejeweled costumes of golden silk with headdresses that look like miniature temples, the dancers retell the story of Mozart's ``The Magic Flute'' -- without the music and a few other surprises.

For starters, there are no guys in ``Pamina Devi'' now at the Joyce Theater in New York through the weekend. All parts are played by females who move with the hypnotizing deliberateness of a Southeast Asian dance tradition dating back 1,000 years.

The pungent oboes, xylophones and drums add a piquant flavor.

``Pamina Devi'' is the kind of Cambodian classical dance project that Fred Frumberg, executive director of the Amrita Performing Arts, has nurtured during the past decade.

Ballet dancers who had fled the Khmer Rouge during its years of murder and destruction introduced him to the art form when he was living in Paris.

An assistant to such directors as Peter Sellars and Francesca Zambello, Frumberg was working at the Bastille Opera in Paris at the time and looking for something new.

He joined Unesco as a volunteer and became part of a community of foreigners devoted to helping the Cambodians recover their heritage. Four years ago, he set up Amrita, which has a U.S. nonprofit status. His first grant, from the Rockefeller Foundation, allowed him to set up in Phnom Penh. New grants now allow the company to work with young artists.

``What impressed me was the sheer resilience of Cambodian classical dance, the fact that it was able to bounce back to life after near annihilation during the Khmer Rouge,'' Frumberg says.

Killing Fields

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, the choreographer of ``Pamina Devi,'' barely survived the killing fields as a child. In her deepest misery, when she barely had enough to eat, she found inspiration and solace in the celestial dancers that appear on Cambodian temples. Now she shuttles between Los Angeles and Takhmao, Cambodia.

``Sophiline had created this amazing work called `Samritechak,' a Cambodian classical dance interpretation of `Othello,''' Frumberg says. ``My organization then helped premiere it in Cambodia.''

Frumberg introduced ``Samritechak'' to director Sellars, who brought it to the Venice Biennale in 2000 and then commissioned ``Pamina Devi'' for a Mozart festival in Vienna last year.

``I'm now developing a new piece based on people interviewed by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which supplies lots of the information being used in the current Khmer Rouge trials,'' Frumberg says. ``We want to perform this in the provinces of Cambodia for Cambodians.''

He still loves taking friends to Angkor Wat, Cambodia's most famous temple. ``There's a certain bend in the road where you see the first tower of that temple,'' says Frumberg. ``Amazingly, after 30 visits, there is still that little extra beat my heart takes when I see that tower.''

``Pamina Devi'' runs through Oct. 14 at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., Manhattan. Information: +1-212-242-0800; . To learn more about Amrita: .

(Robert Hilferty is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Robert Hilferty in New York at

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