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Cambodia's first contemporary dance company pushes boundaries

Modern dancers dispel doubts as art forms diverge from country's traditions

Khun Sreynich, a contemporary dance artist from Cambodia, demonstrates a traditional <i>chib</i> hand gesture with another performer. (Photo by Nathan A. Thompson)

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- Inside the dancers' dressing room, between racks of colorful costumes, a wooden Buddha is turned to face the wall. "We turned him around because we get changed in here," says Sros Sreynoch, one of the dancers.

She picks up the cheap statue. "I don't know why we do that, I mean, his eyes are closed so he can't see us anyway," she laughs, showing a full set of gleaming braces on her teeth.

It is afternoon at the New Cambodian Artists' studio in the tourist town of Siem Reap, on the Thai-Cambodia border. Sreynoch and three fellow dancers exit the dressing room for the main rehearsal space.

Bob Ruijzendaal, the company's Dutch artistic director, shepherds them onto the dance floor, scolding them for carrying their mobile phones. "You're a dance company," he says. "And you're just busy with your own things."

Ruijzendaal founded the group in 2012 but NCA is now co-owned by an all-female team of four dancers and its director, Srey Neung. They lobbied the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts for a year to gain certification as the country's first contemporary dance company in 2016, their efforts hampered by the fact that such certification did not exist back then.

Traditional Apsara dancers offer a blessing to the audience at a performance Phnom Penh. (Photo by Nathan A. Thompson)

As quiet descends on the stage, the lights dim and the music starts. The dancers begin moving with trance-like focus, first as individuals but then blending their movements as the emotional alchemy of the dance moves through sinew and muscle.

They mix modern styles with classical Khmer dance movements, particularly the flourishing hand gestures known as chib. In the West, contemporary dance developed from ballet. Here, it has grown out of Cambodian classical dance, also known as Apsara.

"Our contemporary dance style is unique," says Sreynoch. "In the West they use pointy toes, but our toes are flat and we use chib gestures, so it is very different."

The dancers all trained in classical Cambodian forms at the now defunct Khmer School of Art in Siem Reap. Ruijzendaal says that this traditional grounding is what makes their contemporary dance "completely different."

An improvisation session at the NCA studio (Photo by Nathan A. Thompson)

In Apsara dance, the performers' backs are arched and hollow, their feet grounded and their fingers stretched out, he explains. "They do everything they would kill you for in a classical dance class in Europe," he adds.

The NCA dancers train six days a week and have performed at venues in the capital Phnom Penh. Yet they have struggled to be recognized by the local dance community, who are not accustomed to experimentation.

They were banned from performing at the Angkor Wat World Heritage Site in 2016 because their style was "not Cambodian enough."

"They said our costumes were too sexy and the music was foreign," says Sreynoch. "But art is supposed to be creative. If the performers and choreographers are Cambodian then it's Cambodian enough."

Long Kosal, spokesman for the Apsara Authority which manages the Angkor Wat site, would not directly comment on the ban, saying only: "Any dance company is welcome to submit a request to perform within the park."

The elegant Apsara performances, usually staged at Angkor Wat, are very different to NCA's raw emotional style. Perhaps, then, the ban is not that surprising, especially given that the company has one dance piece that critiques what they see as the passivity of Apsara performances.

Khun Sreynoch performs her red stilletto solo at NCA's studios in Siem Reap. (Photo by Nathan A. Thompson)

In this composition, the performers begin in a staid, almost static fashion, with white-painted faces. The real dance only begins after they wash off the make-up using bowls of water at the front of the stage.

Sreynoch says this represents a break from the Apsara tradition where, in the old days, dancers wore white facepaint, partly to mask their emotions and partly for illumination as there were no stage lights.

The conflict between traditionalists and innovators in Cambodian dance has been ongoing since 1999, when local dancer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro interpreted Shakespeare's Othello as a Khmer dance in 1999 -- a performance informally credited as the country's first ever contemporary dance composition.

"Ultimately the [Apsara] form will live and die on Cambodian classical dancers' hands, not [on] the ministry," says Shapiro. "It's great the ministry pays attention and cares for the art form ... but there should be room for it to evolve according to the time."

Hab Touch, director-general of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, is in favor of contemporary art but wants to make sure young artists do not forget their roots. "We are afraid that some young artists are copying Western styles and forgetting their own identity," he says.

This year the ministry included contemporary art as part of the Cambodian National Culture Day on March 3 for the first time. "We want to offer modern styles and so we are working with our partners and asking the question 'what is Cambodian contemporary art?'" he says. "We hope next year to have a bigger presence from contemporary artists."

Back at the NCA studio, the dancers are watching a performance by the late German choreographer Pina Baush on a laptop. It is the only way they can see contemporary dance performances.

Kong Soengva, Ny Lai and Sreynoch rehearse a new piece about being young and having fun in Cambodia. (Photo by Nathan A. Thompson)

"Baush is totally open and very crazy," Sreynoch says. "Her shows are very free. [The dancers] only wear underwear on stage and they shake and dance very crazily. It's helped me realize we're not onstage only to please the audience."

She and her NCA colleagues have chosen a hard road, bringing a new style to conservative Cambodia. Even local young people seem deterred.

"No boys want to date us," says Kong Soengva, another NCA dancer. "They say we have big muscles and aren't all like...," she adds, adopting a submissive posture.

Director Srey Neung also feels alienated. "I invited [my university classmates] to see us perform for free but they didn't come," she says. "They are not interested in art and culture," she adds. "Siem Reap is a tourist place and they all want to work [in that industry] or banking or whatever. It's not their fault, but we don't understand each other."

To try and end their isolation, NCA wants to send Sreynoch to the Netherlands with Ruijzendaal and his wife Lily to perform and meet other artists. She was recently denied a visa as the letter of invitation had not been submitted correctly. Now she must wait to reapply in September.

Sreynoch wants to perform at Nederlands Dans Theater in Delft, a premier dance space, where she plans to also attend workshops and take back what she learns to her colleagues in Cambodia. She also wants to go to Paris to meet her idol, Japanese dancer and choreographer Kaori Ito.

"They like Ito because she's from Japan which is also a conservative society where women are not supposed to be freaking crazy," says Ruijzendaal. "We wrote her a letter introducing NCA and she invited us to come to her performance and meet her afterwards."

It is now late afternoon and the dancers are eating sliced mango and papaya in between rehearsals. A religious ceremony is taking place next door and crackly speakers amplify the monks' chants.

"My favorite dance is the piece where we wash the white make-up from our faces,'" says Soengva. "For me, it shows that it is time to change and grow up. You can't just do the same stuff all the time."

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