Professional Dancers and their Contemporary Context in Cambodia
By Toni Shapiro-Phim
Traditional repertoire and customary themes
Government-sponsored dance activity, beyond the teaching and performance of selections from the traditional repertoire of classical and folk pieces, includes both the re-staging and completion of previously unfinished works, and the creation of new choreographies for state celebrations and festivals. These dances have been fashioned strictly within the classical or folk movement vocabulary, representing customary themes, such as the celestial, royal, and sweeping mytho-historical focus of the classical repertoire. Thus, while the production of contemporary work in the state institutions of the arts is ongoing, including the Royal University of Fine Arts, it is most often only specific storylines that are new.
“Robam Sahasamay” – contemporary dance
Until very recently, discussion of Cambodian dance within the country revolved predominantly around “tradition.” Though innovation has been a hallmark of even traditional forms of performance, Cambodia’s dancers have over the past several years come to translate the phrase “contemporary dance” as robam (dance) sahasamay (modern/of the same time period), acknowledging that this is a new construct on their part. Nonetheless, Cambodian choreographers, and the institutions supporting their work, are still often tied to concerns about national identity and history, and influenced by a traditionalist discourse.
Identity issues, and the tension between tradition and innovation, are even shaping the artistic choices of foreigners undertaking work with Cambodian dancers. Brussels-based dancer, Emmanuèle Phoun, created Khmeropedies in 2008 in which elements of Khmer classical dance are explored from various angles, and in which a spoken dialogue occurs between different generations about preservation and originality –again, related to dance. Dutch theatre director, Bob Ruijzendaal, had Cambodian dancers voice their individual artistic concerns to the audience as part of an evening-length work (Look at Us Now, 2009) that opened with the symbolic linking of these young artists to their past. Male dancers “sculpted” their female counterparts into the celestial dancers found on temple carvings from the Angkor Empire (9th to 15th centuries).
Both Phoun’s and Ruijzendaal’s works employed common conventions of Western contemporary dance such as pedestrian costumes and movements, a variety of musical accompaniment, innovative choreographic patterns, projections and spoken word. Both also took as their central theme the desire of the younger generation to explore new creative grounds and still to be perceived as loyal to their country's long artistic heritage.
From a completely different starting point, renowned New York-based contemporary dancers, Eiko and Koma, worked for several years with a group of young Khmer visual artists to develop a piece, Cambodian Stories (2005). Combining movement and painting, the work explores the intersection of bodies, the Cambodian landscape, and that landscape’s past and present voices, all informed by Eiko and Koma’s performance aesthetic.
Expanding possibilities: the first generation
The neo-classical choreography of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro represents another distinctive approach to creativity. Inspired by themes other than the divide between tradition and innovation, Sophiline is not beholden to principles of Western technique or conventions. Her company, the Khmer Arts Ensemble, established in Cambodia in 2007, performs both contemporary creations and works from the classical canon. Sophiline has a firm base as an accomplished performer and teacher of classical dance. Together with Kim Sathia and Mao Tipmony who work on integrated dance pieces, Sek Sophea who runs the Association for the Conservation of Arts and Culture, and numerous others, Sophiline was a member of the first generation to study dance professionally after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge. Among the teachers of that generation of artists in Phnom Penh were Chea Khan, Chea Samy, Chum Hun, Kim Sophon, Na Ton, Em Theay, Menh Kossony, Pen Sokhuon, Peng Yom, Proeung Chhieng, Ros Kong, Sim Muntha, Sin Samatikchho, Un Bo, Yith Sarin, and other dancers who survived the Khmer Rouge regime.
Since 1999, Sophiline has been expanding classical dance’s possibilities through the development of original dance dramas that break with fixed movement patterns and received storylines, and through experimention with gesture and costume – both of which are often officially considered inviolate. Sophiline also makes pioneering use of traditional musical arrangements and undertakes inventive collaborations with U.S. based composers and music ensembles.
Casting aside preoccupationsFollowing training with visiting artists, and participation in choreography workshops abroad, a coterie of choreographers in their twenties is emerging. Some of these artists were involved in the development of Cambodia’s first solely contemporary dance group, Compass, in 2006. These artists have cast aside preoccupations with stylistic and thematic limits and definitions, despite occasional criticism from teachers and peers for straying from strictly “Cambodian” performances. Whether initially trained as classical or folk dancers, these artists have found unique creative voices through movement and music, playing with literature, biography and autobiography, emotion, nature and politics for inspiration.
is a dance ethnologist who earned her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Cornell University (USA). Her areas of expertise include Cambodian dance, displacement/migration, gender, and human rights and social justice issues. Co-author of “Dance in Cambodia” (Oxford 1999) and co-editor of “Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion” (Scarecrow 2008), she is currently director of Khmer Arts Research and Archiving in Takhmao, Cambodia.