Apsara are the heavenly dancers of Khmer mythology, the shape-changing nymphs whose bas-relief images have adorned the walls of the temple of Angkor Wat since the 12th century. The traditions of Cambodian classical court dance, with its sustained, floating motions and backward-slanting hand gestures, are believed to have been modeled on this timeless iconography.
It's more than appropriate, then, that Lowell's Angkor Dance Troupe is celebrating its 25th anniversary season with a performance entitled Apsara Dancing Stones. The troupe's story is itself an example of art springing from mere imagination to unlikely existence.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, displacing the nation's population and creating its notorious "killing fields," artists and intellectuals were among the first to be targeted and executed. By most counts, some 90 percent of the nation's dancers and musicians were murdered or starved during the four-year-long regime. When, in the mid-1980s, Cambodian refugees began to build communities in urban centers like Lowell, there was real question whether any of their rich classical and folk culture could be reconstituted.
It could, and it has.
Angkor Dance Troupe was established not merely to revive and pass on the traditions of Khmer performing arts, but to offer the sometimes troubled children of exile positive alternatives to apathy and violence. Linda Sopheap Sou was one of those children. A community advocate and the daughter of one of the troupe's founders, she started dancing at age three. Now, nearing 30, she directs the Lowell Community Health Center's Teen Coalition. Angkor Dance Troupe features a cohort of performers who have been with the troupe since the ages of 8 or 10, and the company continues to train young people. They appear at festivals, special events (including a White House performance) and have shared the stage with visiting troupes from Phnom Penh.
"What we find," says Sou, "is that people who were born and raised here become more familiar with Western systems, being involved with . . . youth-development programs. The first generation that came here didn't understand why kids needed to stay after school. Over the decades, our elders have understood the importance of their culture and why it's important for us to be community advocates for our culture."
Apsara Dancing Stones, choreographed by new artistic director Phousita Huy, a former Cambodian assistant minister of culture, is the first full-length, fully produced program in the troupe's history. The dance spans the breadth of Cambodian history, from the birth of its gods and goddesses through the rebirth of Khmer culture after war. In Apsara Dancing Stones, even stones can be revitalized.
ANGKOR DANCE TROUPE :: Lowell Memorial Auditorium, 50 East Merrimack St, Lowell :: October 27 :: 7:30 pm :: $18-$125 :: 978.454.2219 :: angkordance.org