Angkor Dance Troupe's Apsara Dancing Stones is a terrifying essay in beauty. A student, visiting Angkor Wat with Cambodian-Americans friends, falls asleep. In dreamland, he becomes a prince in love with an Apsara (dancing female spirit). His love is destroyed by a raging Krut (Khmer bird spirit — Garuda in Hindi), with the prince himself killed before waking up reborn into a better tomorrow.
This is no easy theme for a group such as Lowell-based Angkor Dance, with its many teenage-and-younger members. But the large-scale and intricate production — conceived by artistic director Phousita Huy and presented last weekend at Lowell Memorial Auditorium — was delivered with professionalism and emotional power.
Modern and traditional dance combine. The show got off to a fast start with drum-driven rhythms from the students who were visiting the story's Angkor Wat. Later, a nighttime flashlight street scene also showed contemporary-dance flair.
Monica Veth led the audience into the dream world with an Apsara dance. Her mesmerizing coordination of body, hands, and facial expressions came together with a singular fluidity evoking the Buddhist flow of life. Sokhoeun Sok appeared as Prince Mearnup, her dance with the Apsara one of rapturous intensity. The complex gestures exchanged by the lovers intertwined with fragrant simplicity.
And then came the violence. First the stylized clashing of sticks by warriors, wrought with great precision by the troupe's adrenal boys' brigade. And then, the Krut's dance of destruction made unbearably cruel by Peter Veth's smooth dancing. Apsaras and dream prince were annihilated with a scorching lyricism. As a mournful violin guided them, the broken Angkor Apsaras wept in sublime agony. A mass of flowers flowed in for a finale dance of rebirth, color, and hope.
The choreography, including contributions from Soth Somaly — a major exponent of Cambodian dance who came over from Phnom Penh especially to prepare the show — and modern elements prepared by Veth, was gripping. Costumes from Phnom Penh were dazzling in their colors, fabrics, and adornments. The often earthy music for traditional instruments recorded in Cambodia brought drama and continuity to the plot.
On a surface level, Apsara Dancing Stones laments the damage to Angkor Wat through vandalism; more deeply, it represents the destruction of a people by the Khmer Rouge, and a hope for rebirth. For the Lowell-based Angkor Dance Troupe, celebrating its 25th anniversary, it went a step further as a metaphor for the rebuilding of a transplanted refugee community here in Massachusetts.
Angkor Dance is the labor of love of founder and program director Tim Thou, who has led this extraordinary organization to become not only a crown jewel in the Massachusetts cultural landscape but also a beacon of hope for the children of Cambodian refugees often growing up under difficult circumstances and feelings of disconnection. More than 1000 have participated in its educational and performance programs. Reaksmey Yan, a bulky 16-year-old transformed into a hard-hitting warrior on stage, said, "Tim is like a Dad. He cares for each and every one of us as if we are his own." And part of that care involves bringing the students to terms with their people's troubled past as well as a vibrant culture. Charlie Chhor, 19, said, "Mom and Dad were refugees, but I didn't know much." Being in the troupe has changed that.