This is the central theme in Khmer Arts Ensemble’s delicately wrought “A Bend in the River,” presented Friday night by Northrop Dance at the State Theatre — and it is a potent one given the historical context from which the world premiere work emerges. Its next stop is the “Season of Cambodia” festival in New York City.

Choreographer and 2013 McKnight International Artist Fellow Sophiline Cheam Shapiro leads the troupe, which is based in Takhmao, Cambodia (near Phnom Penh).

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge forced a young Cheam Shapiro and her family out of their home and into the countryside. She lost her father and two brothers. Also among the brutal regime’s targets were artists and scholars. Long-standing cultural traditions nearly disappeared during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror.

But while the past informs “A Bend in the River,” the evening-length piece also showcases Cheam Shapiro’s forward-looking perspective.

Based on a folk tale about Moha, a monster-sized crocodile, and Kaley (danced by a confident Mot Pharan), the young woman who challenges him, the work combines the classical Cambodian dance form with an innovative new musical composition by Him Sophy for pin peat ensemble (percussion/woodwind).

The reptile itself is rendered beautifully in bamboo and rattan by sculptor Sopheap Pich. The performers skillfully manipulate segments of its puppet body to emulate smooth-yet-deadly swimming motions.

The dancing relies on arms and hands undulating with expressive gestures as well as an elegantly curved body position. The fingers are a striking feature — bent back at extreme angles, they fold and unfold like petals.

An all-woman cast portrays male and female roles with fluid efficiency. They move lightly, as if caught up in the softly swirling river eddies referenced in the production design through the surprisingly beautiful use of IV tubing. And sometimes the tone is so soothing that it lulls the viewer into a dream state — both to the work’s credit and occasional detriment. A repetitive choreographic structure can feel like filler at times but it also supports the work’s core strength, a steady yet subtle rhythmic pulse.

“A Bend in the River” proves life’s complexity. Sometimes foes have redeeming qualities. And that is a bold statement coming from Cheam Shapiro and her collaborators. 

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.