Looking Forwards Glancing Back

dance2Think of Cambodian dance and almost inevitably your mind will turn to Apsara. In recent years many projects have focused on preserving the country’s rich cultural heritage. But what is being done about its future? A small bunch of young dancers and choreographers are striving to create a contemporary dance scene without forgetting the country’s past. Words by Mark Bibby Jackson. Photos by Dylan Walker.

One woman stands in the middle of the stage, her face concealed by her hair. Several men are holding a thin white material that restrains her body. Emerging from her veil, her legs become enwrapped in the material. After a short tug of war with her captors she eventually gains her freedom.

The scene is the opening for ‘My Name is …’, a new contemporary dance piece by Cambodian choreographer Belle, 26, who is also the woman on the stage. “I kept my face hidden so that people will not recognise me,” explains Belle after the piece’s first performance at the Chenla Theatre last month.

The opening sequence resounds with images of birth. The material can be interpreted as a mother’s womb or, during the tug of war, an umbilical cord. But whose birth is it?

For the choreographer, the dance is quite literally about individuals trying to find their own identity. “It is a simple idea but it is also important,” says Belle. “For example, my name is Chumvan Sodhachivy but my nickname is Belle. I have two names but I am still me−Belle.”

Despite her mounting reputation as one of the country’s finest dancers, Belle is keen not to lose track of her roots.
“Before I was just a normal girl, but now I have become a good dancer and also a teacher but I still know where I come from,” she says.

Belle’s background draws upon Cambodia’s rich tradition of dance. Like many of the country’s emerging crop of contemporary dancers, Belle is classically trained. She has studied and practised Khmer traditional dance since a young girl, only recently converting to a more contemporary form. Even now she performs both forms of dance, as well as hip hop.

“It is my background and also my identity that I never forget it,” she says of classical Apsara dancing. While much of western contemporary dance has its roots in ballet even inside Asia, Cambodia has its own traditional dance that dates back to the Apsara dancers of the Angkorean era. In 2003, Apsara dance was recognised by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage.

The question is whether Cambodia should abandon its roots in adopting a more western approach to dancing or instead follow its Apsara traditions. If Belle were to study western ballet, she would in effect have to unlearn centuries of tradition. “You don’t teach Belle western ballet,” says Fred Frumberg, executive director of Amrita Performing Arts. “You would deconstruct all of her training and put her in a state of insecurity.”

Few people know as much about Cambodian contemporary dance as Frumberg does. He has devoted 14 years first to preserving classical Cambodian dance and, more recently, to developing a contemporary repertoire. During this time he has seen a whole crop of contemporary dancers, including Belle, emerge.

Frumberg believes that contemporary Cambodian dance is approaching an exciting new dawn.

Admitting he has always talked about Amrita creating contemporary dance “with a bit of apology attached to it” so as not to offend those people working to preserve traditional dance forms, he now believes the time for reticence is over.

“I realised that Cambodia is ready to have a contemporary dance vocabulary without apologising for it or whispering in dark corners,” Frumberg says.

He believes that now is the time for defining what contemporary dance means for Cambodians. There are several young choreographers who possess the ability to produce a new repertoire. One of them, Chey Chankethya, is currently studying a master’s degree in choreography at UCLA as a Fulbright Fellow.

This month, Belle and two male dancers, Chy Ratana and Phon Sopheap, will undergo an intensive workshop with three American choreographers, sponsored by Smith College, U.S.
 “[It] will conclude with our first platform of new works entirely created by Cambodian artists,” says Frumberg.

Developing a Contemporary Form Frumberg is familiar with the development of contemporary dance across the region. He draws parallels between Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand with the current situation in Cambodia. In these countries, contemporary dance has been based on traditional local dance forms.

“They have, for better or for worse, created contemporary dance that is rooted in their classical heritage, because it is important to them that even the contemporary doesn’t lose track of the classic,” he says.

The same has not occurred in other Asian countries where a homogenised western approach to contemporary dance has been adopted. Frumberg believes this would be a big mistake for Cambodia.

“ One has to take ownership of [dance] before a western form of contemporary dance totally infiltrates and takes over, as has happened in Singapore or other countries that have lost their identity in many ways,” he says.

Cambodian contemporary dance has a vocabulary that is quintessentially Cambodian, with local choreographers trained in the classic Khmer dance tradition.

“ Even those who don’t like it say there is no question that this is Cambodian,” he says. “And that’s what is so exciting about it. These dancers are absolutely representing their heritage but in a very modern way.”

Oliver Planchon, the cultural attaché for the French Institute, is equally excited about contemporary dance in the country.

“We are at the beginning of a very thorough change in the dance scenery in Cambodia,” he says. “There is a new step. I find it very exciting.”

Over the years, the French Institute (formerly known as the French Cultural Centre) has brought both contemporary and classical western dance troupes and choreographers to Cambodia as well as promoted local performers in a cultural exchange.

Dancers such as Belle have participated in workshops organised by Planchon and his predecessors. Belle’s ‘My Name Is’ was supported by the Institute as part of its ‘Roam! Dansez!’ series.

Planchon believes the Institute plays an important role in funding programmes in both contemporary dance and hip hop. 

“The idea is to give classical artists the possibility to express their ideas and talent through contemporary expressions,” he says. “Our work is to go with them in this way.”

He cites Belle’s current work as one example of how the past can be combined with the present within one piece.

“ You will find some remnants of classical ballet,” he says. “But it is just a blink of the eye. There is also some hip hop but an adaptation in an artistic way.”

The tug of war in the piece’s opening sequence has a clear analogy with the ‘Churning of the Sea of Milk’ depicted along the walls of Angkor Wat. It is an analogy not lost on the choreographer.

“It’s really important that when they [contemporary dancers] go forwards they do not forget the way to come back home,” she says.

Developing a contemporary Cambodian dance repertoire is no simple thing. Whereas traditional Apsara dancing is very slow and controlled, contemporary dance is much more expressive.
 “When I perform classical dance it is not me, I am a princess. When I perform a contemporary dance it’s talking about me, about something I want to say,” says Belle. “It’s about the future not the past.”

The potential for contemporary dance is not just limited to the stage.

Stephen Bimson graduated in dance from London’s Rambert School in 2009. After working on community dance projects in Germany, he shifted his focus to Cambodia. He came in January this year to work on community dance projects for Outreach International. Working with teenage Cambodians through local NGOs, Bimson put on two performances, the second of which took place on the riverfront in July.

He believes that contemporary dance allows youths to express themselves in a way that is not so easy in other art forms.

“It is accessible to people who haven’t had a structured training for years and don’t know the vocabulary you’d need for ballet,” he says. “Traditional art forms are very rigid in what you do physically and the story lines you can attempt with them.”

Contemporary forms also allow the dancers to take an active part in the process of creating the work, something which can be invigorating in a society that tends to teach by rote.

“It is often quite an empowering experience to actually stand up and have a voice,” Bimson says. “It can be somewhat subversive and you can say things and speak out and produce work which has an opinion about something.”

Bimson uses this to discuss issues that are important for the future of his students, as in the recent performance on the riverside.

“We were talking about ecological issues, where we have come from as a species, what we have done to our planet, how are we going to get over that,” he says. “That was great because a lot of the kids hadn’t really thought about that before.”

No organisation better typifies the potential of dance to effect social change than Tiny Toones.

Established in December 2004, the organisation works with youths aged three to 27. In addition to teaching hip hop, break dance and rap, Tiny Toones has a school curriculum that includes Khmer, English, maths, education about drugs, HIV and sex, and computer classes.

“Arts, dancing and rapping is like a hobby,” says Tiny Toones’ founder and executive director KK. “Our main goal is education, so we try to put every kid in some type of programme to make it through school. They have to be in school to be part of the programme.”

Although the majority of the students are street children, orphans or former sex workers, Tiny Toones has an inclusive policy of accepting all children who want to dance and learn. The kids train for four hours a day five days a week.

 The organisation allows some of the capital’s most vulnerable children to let off some steam.

 “Lots of street kids have a lot of anger inside and dancing is a way to express their anger. Just to bring it out on the dance floor,” says KK, who himself was born in a refugee camp on the Thai border before emigrating to Long Beach, California, where he learned to dance on the streets.

Tiny Toones has performed throughout Cambodia as well as in Thailand, Mexico, Italy, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines and the US. Next year the group plans to go to Melbourne to perform a new work about the growth of drug dependence in the country.

KK confesses that he has been surprised by the advances he has seen in his students.

 “They are moving faster than I thought they would,” he says. “The kids are fast learners. The kids who have been here seven years choreograph their own work.”

Despite the origins of hip hop being as far removed from Apsara as possible, KK says that Cambodian hip hop has a distinct Khmer flavour. Dancers will perform traditional monkey dances before performing a back flip.

Still, KK believes that there is much room for improvement.

“I believe in the future Cambodians could become way better dancers because they are already flexible and if they learn how to open up they could be such good dancers,” he says. “We are so different to everybody else. How we dance and how our cultural life is.”

As is the case for the arts across the world, one obstacle to the creation of a distinctly Cambodian contemporary repertoire is a lack of financial support. Frumberg admits that Amrita’s funding is very much on a hand to mouth basis. Works tend to be in response to donor funding rather than the other way around.

“Every three months I have to keep begging and pleading,” he says. “What I want to do is stop raising money and when I have it do a piece. I want to create a season of work and, based on that season of work, trust that the money will come in.”

There is a rueful smile on his face when Frumberg observes that the main debate in a recent conference in Seoul he attended was whether there was too much funding of the arts in South Korea.

 Basic things like the lack of a contemporary dance school or a contemporary dance troupe are holding back the development of a Cambodian contemporary dance movement. Even Amrita hires in freelance dancers for each show. This prevents the creation of a Cambodian oeuvre. Instruction is given on an ad hoc basis often revolving around workshops funded with donor money or by the French Institute.

While Frumberg aims to launch Amrita into a new phase whereby it will strive to define what contemporary dance means for Cambodians, Belle is much more grounded. She is encouraged by a growing audience for contemporary dance that was just not there five years ago. Back then the few people who did attend performances just did not get what she was trying to do. Now people come up to her after performances.

“They start to say that they understand me,” Belle says. “Sometimes it’s really the opposite to my idea, sometimes it’s exactly the same as my idea.” This misunderstanding is not a problem for her. “I put a thing on the stage and make a question for them [the audience],” she says. It really matters little what the answer is.

At the end of ‘My name is …’ the whole dance troupe stands on the stage shouting out their names to the audience. Whether this is a comment on contemporary dance claiming its own identity, or more simply a matter of young Cambodians declaring who they are, is a moot point. Although Cambodian contemporary dance might not yet have discovered what it is, it has at least started to find its voice.

First Published in AsiaLIFE Cambodia, November 2011