A Dancer in the Big City

NEW YORK/PHNOM PENH – Barefoot, Noun Sovitou opened the door of a large apartment building in Manhattan’s Little Italy, on the edge of this city’s bustling China Town. New York City, the 24-year-old dancer from Kandal province said, is very different from home. 

“It’s busy, and a bit chaotic, and everything’s very big and modern,” Sovitou said last week, as he passed the shiny front desk to enter the elevator leading to a spacious two bedroom apartment, which he was sharing with four more artists during the Season of Cambodia festival.

Organized by Cambodia Living Arts to showcase the country’s cultural heritage at major venues in New York, the Season of Cambodia festival began at the start of April. The two-month-long festival for the first time brought 125 Cambodian artists to New York, including Chapei musician Kong Nay, visual artist Sopheap Pich and artist Leng Seckon. Photo exhibitions, rattan art, Cambodian documentaries, shadow puppet plays and dance performances by Amrita Performing Arts were showcased as well as the Royal Ballet. The festival has been acclaimed in U.S. media, which highlighted Sovitou and his colleagues at Amrita Performing Arts, describing their performances as “breathtaking.”

As one of Sovitou’s roommates slurped noodle soup for breakfast, the dancer, a specialist in the monkey role in the classical male dance of Lakhaon Kaol, talked about his experiences over the past few weeks.

“There’s such a routine here. On the weekdays, the streets are busy and everybody seems stressed, and there are just so many people,” he said.

A major change comes with Friday evening, Sovitou said, as people are more relaxed, walk slower, and flock the parks with their friends to enjoy the spring weather.

Last month, Sovitou performed in the contemporary “Khmeropedies III” by choreographer Emmanuele Phuon and Peter Chin’s “Olden New Golden Blue,” both productions of Amrita Performing Arts. But he has also found some time in recent weeks to explore the city with fellow Cambodian dancers and artists.

Wrapped in warm jackets, thick scarves and beanies, they have crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, taken a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and stood in the middle of Times Square, amazed by the bright and ubiquitous advertisements.

“It’s not that hard to get around because we always got a map, or we ask people for the way. Usually they are very friendly. If we do get lost, we just see it as a detour,” Sovitou said.

Coming from a family of rice farmers with four children in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, Sovitou didn’t always have the self-confidence he showed in New York.

“Growing up, there was little money and a lot of constraint,” he said, recalling how he was sent to live with his grandmother in Phnom Penh at a young age.

To help support their living, after school Sovitou would balance a big basket on his head filled with his grandmother’s cakes and walk the city’s dusty roads to sell them. He worked hard and studied, but never thought that he’d be able to better his life—or get the chance to travel abroad, to stand on the world’s biggest stages and bow to the applause of hundreds of people.

“Before I moved to Phnom Penh, I didn’t know anything about the arts. I didn’t know what it was, or how people could make a living through it,” he said.

It was his uncle, a dancer and musician, who got him interested, and in the little spare time they both had, they studied dance together, until Sovitou was accepted at the Secondary School of Fine Arts in 2000.

From then on, his confidence grew, and he realized that dance held many opportunities.

In 2009, he had to get his first passport to perform in Taiwan. “I was on this plane, and I was so excited, but I calmed myself down,” he said. After visiting Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Germany to dance, taking a plane to showcase Cambodian culture abroad has become a routine that he sees as a service to his country.

“The older I got, the more I realized how important my work is. Just like the military protects our country’s borders, artists protect our culture,” Sovitou said.

Traveling abroad also gave him the chance to experience other cultures, which has helped him progress as an artist.

“I dance traditional Khmer monkey dance, but a lot of it is contemporary, and by watching artists from other countries, I can learn from them,” he said.

In New York, however, people were eager to learn from Sovitou.

The Royal Ballet and other dancers held workshops around New York, among them the Mark Morris Dance Group, where Sovitou and eight others taught a Khmeropedies III workshop. Usually, students at Mark Morris practice ballet or contemporary Western dances in a translucent tower in Brooklyn. But last week, they had to adopt the movements of monkeys.

As an introduction to the Khmer monkey dance, Sovitou ran through the studio on all fours, stopped and rested his straight upper body on his legs before wildly scratching his head. The about 25 Americans who had joined the workshop started to giggle. Undeterred, Sovitou continued, and it soon became clear that even if the motions looked haphazard, the dance was structured and coordinated.

Over the following two hours, Sovitou fought against inflexible fingers and awry backs, and clearly enjoyed his role as teacher and the interest the students from all age groups showed.

“The workshops are fun, and I think people really enjoy them, but of course in the little time we have, they can only learn basics,” he said.

The work is rewarding for Sovitou, but even more so for the intrigued questions of New Yorkers who had paid up to about $40 to see dance performances at the Guggenheim Museum and the Abrons Arts Center.

“During the receptions, I met many Americans. They all came to say hello and ask so many questions. Some ask how hard it is to train, because it requires so much energy, and they ask personal questions, about my experience and background, or how hard it is to switch from traditional Khmer dance to contemporary,” Sovitou said, adding that the interest made him feel proud and appreciated as an artist.

The dancers and singers performing on streets, subways and in parks, the sights and the cities’ massive buildings and the mix of cultures and languages were inspiring, he said, and just days before leaving late last week, he made up his mind about his future.

“I want to find a school to study dance in New York,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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