What: Samsara: A Dance Journey
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: McPherson Playhouse
Tickets: $23 at rmts.bc.ca and 250-386-6121.
When you think of Buddhist monks, you probably don’t think, “Hey, I bet those guys can really dance.”
But for Victoria’s Nath Keo, one year in a monastery provided the inspiration for what the choreographer is calling his most personal work.
Keo, who moved to Victoria as a six-year-old refugee in 1986, has always maintained a strong connection with his homeland of Cambodia. He returns annually, and in 2006 decided to take it further by committing a year to monastic studies in a remote area near the Vietnamese border, where he was ordained as a Buddhist monk.
“It’s something that has been part of my family lineage,” he said. “In each generation, one of the sons would spend a significant time in a monastery as a Buddhist monk.”
It was also an item on his bucket list that Keo wanted to explore before committing entirely to a career in dance, which was already developing quickly and would ultimately lead to the formation of his company Sacred Centre Dance.
But from the climate to the challenge of learning chants (it turned out to be quite a different process than memorizing songs or lines for theatre) the reality of monastic life was a world away from the romanticized picture Keo had imagined.
“I tell people it is the most challenging and rewarding period in my life thus far,” he said. “It wasn’t what I expected at all.”
Keo is finally putting what he learned on stage in Samsara, which premières at the McPherson Playhouse on Saturday.
Samsara, which loosely translates to “cycle of life,” or “continuous flow,” takes inspiration from six stages of life identified through Buddhist philosophy. The first act moves through birth, love and sickness. The second act concludes with suffering, death and finally, rebirth.
Keo has spent the past year working on the piece with his troupe of eight female dancers, including his sister Bunny. It is the Sacred Centre Dance’s fifth major undertaking and follows 2012’s Raqstar, 2010’s Emerald Oasis, 2008’s Shaabi Shake 2000 and 2007’s Tribute to Nadia Gamal.
The nearly-two-hour work blends his varied dance expertise into 28 unique choreographies, representing Middle Eastern belly dance, Cambodian classical and folk dance, Cambodian martial arts, as well as meditation mudras.
“The technique and dance performance itself is based on all my previous training combined,” Keo said. “And I’m basically borrowing movements from each of these forms to create a specific mood or look or feel for each number.”
Keo said he finished his monastic studies a calmer person, who was able to accomplish work more efficiently and with less physical strain. But the spiritual experience also left him with an important new perspective:
“It certainly changed the way I move and dance,” he said. “It’s a very odd combination, between monastic life and performance life. They’re very different. One is about letting go of ego and the other is about using your ego and burning it as fuel to put on a performance.”
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