Choreographer’s New Dance Borrows From Boxing

When three Cambodian contemporary dancers were told by choreographer Emmanuele Phuon last year that they had to train in Khmer freestyle boxing before starting work on her new dance, they were puzzled, to say the least.

Soon afterward, Noun Sovitou, Khon Chan Sithyka and Nget Rady found themselves in the Old Stadium’s boxing compound, joining the fighters in their daily routine over two periods of four weeks.

From left; choreographer Emmanuele Phuon rehearses her latest dance, 'Brodal Serei,' with dancers Nget Rady, Noun Sovitou and Khon Chan Sithyka in Phnom Penh last month. (John Vink)
From left; choreographer Emmanuele Phuon rehearses her latest dance, ‘Brodal Serei,’ with dancers Nget Rady, Noun Sovitou and Khon Chan Sithyka in Phnom Penh last month. (John Vink)

“At first, it was totally strange,” said Mr. Rady. Although the dancers had trained since infancy in the demanding traditional dance form Lakhaon Kaol, Mr. Rady found the fierce attitude that boxers must adopt totally foreign to him.

“Boxers’ stance is to put on a determined and aggressive expression on their faces and harden their bodies so they can confront their adversaries,” he said. “I’m gentler by nature and it was difficult for me to build up that aggressive attitude.”

The training proved easier for Mr. Sovitou, who had done stints of freestyle boxing, or Brodal Serei, during breaks from studying as a classical dancer in the 2000s. “Sport is my life, not just a hobby,” he said. “But this was about recreating Khmer boxing movements in dance, and finding the best way to translate a fight stance into dance has been really hard.”

This training, which was followed last year and this year by intensive choreography work with Ms. Phuon, led to the creation of the dance “Brodal Serei,” which will be presented as a work in progress in open rehearsal on Friday afternoon in Phnom Penh.

This is the fourth time that Ms. Phuon, a French-American choreographer of Cambodian heritage, has created a dance in cooperation with Amrita Performing Arts and its Cambodian contemporary dancers. Her previous work “Khmeropedies III” received rave reviews in 2013 in New York City, where it was presented at the Guggenheim Museum during the Season of Cambodia festival.

For Ms. Phuon, creating a dance inspired by Khmer boxing goes far beyond a simple theme for a new work; it is part of her quest to expand the “physical language” of contemporary dance in Cambodia.

“I wanted to find movements…that were from Cambodia,” she said, rather than borrowing from contemporary dance styles of other countries. Her research led her to Brodal Serei, which has an entire range of unique movements that, in her opinion, “constitutes a physical vocabulary in itself.”

But Ms. Phuon’s quest to broaden the scope of dance did not stop at abstract forms. “What fascinates me is people,” she said.

Dancer Nget Rady on Monday moves an old boxing-match poster that will be used as a prop for the dance. (John Vink)
Dancer Nget Rady on Monday moves an old boxing-match poster that will be used as a prop for the dance. (John Vink)

While she was still toying with concepts for a new piece, Ms. Phuon spent a few weeks at the Old Stadium watching boxers in their daily routine. There, she befriended boxer Him Sarann. “I thought, ‘Let’s do something on freestyle boxing and show what their lives are: How they train, how they pray, what they think, what they’re afraid of and what they earn…doing some sort of a danced documentary on Khmer freestyle boxing and adding movements to the dance [repertory] in the process,” she said.

Ms. Phoun then asked Mr. Sarann to oversee the three dancers’ boxing training. “They wanted me to show them the biggest challenges that boxers face in real life,” he said. “So I trained them to feel the real emotions we go through…the fear of being hit on the nose or the thoughts and emotions when we are injured or knocked out.”

After their weeks at the Old Stadium, the three dancers worked with Ms. Phuon to create the dance. Mr. Sarann served as a technical adviser, occasionally bringing in other boxers to demonstrate specific stances.

Developed over one working session last year and a second one last month, “Brodal Serei” consists of a dance with a spoken monologue accompanied by two musicians playing Cambodian flute and drums. The text is mainly excerpts from a long interview Ms. Phuon did with Mr. Sarann on his life and career, with all the joys and fear it entails.

Through their experience learning about their movements, the dancers have come to truly respect the boxers. “They train so hard, and make so little to support their families,” Mr. Sithyka said. “They are so talented and sacrifice their life for boxing even though they make so little money.”

The three dancers have built friendships with the boxers and continue to stay in touch with them. In the meantime, Amrita and Ms. Phuon plan to develop the dance into a full performance by next year, according to Kang Rithisal, Amrita’s executive director.

“It is fascinating to see the life of a boxer, boxing and this particular aspect of Cambodian life presented in a contemporary expression,” he said.

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