Khmeropedies: all thumbs — in a good way

Tell It to the Hand

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There’s a memorable episode of M*A*S*H in that program’s fourth season, in 1975, when Hawkeye Pierce, concussed from a jeep accident, delivers a lengthy monologue, in an effort to remain awake and conscious, to the Korean family who’s taken him in. A highlight of that monologue was an inspired discourse on the wonders of the human thumb and the hand to which it is attached, a tiny piece of anatomy to which we owe no small part of our humanity.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this ancient bit of TV fare while watching Emmanuele Phuon’s Khmeropedies I and II. In the two works, Phuon’s four Cambodian dancers have a rollicking time deconstructing classical Khmer court dance, but for me the principal characters on stage were the ones at the ends of their arms, their hands and thumbs, which seemed to exist somehow apart from bodies and take flight, fluttering around like snared birds and butterflies, flipping over backwards, doing somersaults and backbends, touching their toes, spinning like pinwheels. In classical Cambodian dance, the hands are delicate and subtle instruments of communication; each gesture and position has a specific meaning, and perfect technique involves holding the arm outstretched with the palm facing out and up, the fingers pointing back at the owner like impossibly limber limbo dancers.

Audiences loved the two pieces and their exotic Southeast Asian influences — more of which we’ll presumably get from Shen Wei Dance Arts later in the festival. Phon Sopheap’s monkey in particular was uncanny and irresistible; for those who’ve been lucky enough to visit the Angkor temples and nearby Siem Reap, his impression (a standard of classical technique, complete with scratching) was a dead ringer for the site’s ubiquitous long-tailed macaque monkeys.

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