Through Modern Dance, the Hopes and Fears of Refugees

In 1978, Neth Phoumary fled a Khmer Rouge work camp in Svay Rieng province on foot, with her infant son and handicapped daughter in a basket on her back and her 2-year-old daughter clutching her hand at her side.

They eventually arrived at a Vietnamese refugee camp near Ho Chi Minh City where they remained for nearly a year, only returning to Cambodia after the Pol Pot regime had been ousted.

From left, dancers Yon Davy, Soy Chanborey and Nget Rady rehearse a scene from 'Departure' at the Department of Performing Arts theater in Phnom Penh earlier this week. (John Vink/Magnum for The Cambodia Daily)
From left, dancers Yon Davy, Soy Chanborey and Nget Rady rehearse a scene from ‘Departure’ at the Department of Performing Arts theater in Phnom Penh earlier this week. (John Vink/Magnum for The Cambodia Daily)

For 31-year-old choreographer Chey Chankethya, her mother’s story—and its parallels to the plight of Syrian refugees trudging along European roads—served as the inspiration create the contemporary dance “Departure.”

“With this, I tried to look into how uncertain life can be,” Ms. Chankethya said in an interview this week.

“Every day, we face challenges, of course. But being a refugee, life is even tougher. One moment, you have hope. Then the next, you lose all hope—you don’t know what will happen next in your life. And you don’t even have a home…. That’s what I’m focusing on.”

“Departure,” a 37-minute dance staged by six members of the Amrita Performing Arts troupe, will be presented at the Department of Performing Arts theater in Phnom Penh tonight and on Saturday.

In the piece, the dancers walk onto the stage determinedly, putting one foot in front of the other until unknown obstacles force them to stop, back up and find a new path. Their shadows are projected against a plain backdrop, creating the illusion of a much larger group of people.

Nget Rady, left, and Khon Chansina rehearse a scene from 'Departure.' (John Vink/Magnum for The Cambodia Daily)
Nget Rady, left, and Khon Chansina rehearse a scene from ‘Departure.’ (John Vink/Magnum for The Cambodia Daily)

In a later scene, the dancers lie down, defeated, leaving their clothing behind as they leave the stage. Only one man remains, barely able to move. Then, with hesitation, he begins to stand up, eventually rising to his full height, having regained courage and dignity.

The dance is performed to original electronic music, save for the last scene, which is set to a traditional Cambodian song about a woman asking the gods to bless her country whenever conflict tears it apart.

The performance is part of Amrita’s Contemporary Dance Platform, held twice a year as an opportunity for its contemporary dancers to stage their works in progress.

“Departure” is the first dance choreographed by Ms. Chankethya since she obtained a master’s degree in choreography from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2014.

Nget Rady in a scene from 'Departure' (John Vink/Magnum for The Cambodia Daily)
Nget Rady in a scene from ‘Departure’ (John Vink/Magnum for The Cambodia Daily)

The second performance of the Contemporary Dance Platform is Chy Ratana’s “Somewhere,” a 20-minute, abstract exploration of one’s environment.

“The dance is about a place we have never been to or a place where we’ve been but hardly remembered or paid attention to,” Mr. Ratana said. In the performance, two dancers journey through surroundings old and new, also visiting imaginary places of their dreams, the 27-year-old choreographer said.

The performance begins at 7 p.m. on both days.

[email protected], [email protected]

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.