Contemporary Dancers Revisit Dance Roots in New Works

Phon Sopheap’s new dance “Mon­key’s Mask II” starts with three male dancers making playful moves to quirky music, moving casually on stage.

But as the dance goes on, they progressively become transported by the spirit of traditional dance characters, striking the classic poses of lakhaon kaol masked dance and eventually donning formal masks. This 25-minute journey into Khmer dance tradition involves several unusual scenes, such as one in which the dancers manipulate a huge white sheet, at times wrapping each other up.

From left, Khon Chansina, Khon Chan Sithyka and Chey Rithea in the dance 'Monkey's Mask II.' (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
From left, Khon Chansina, Khon Chan Sithyka and Chey Rithea in the dance ‘Monkey’s Mask II.’ (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The work will be presented tonight and Saturday by Amrita Performing Arts during its biannual Contemporary Dance Platform event in Phnom Penh. Held to give its dancers the opportunity to stage their own choreographies, the event will include three dances: Mr. Sopheap’s “Monkey’s Mask II,” Soy Chanborey’s “The Real” and Nam Narim’s “The Edge.”

This time, the three choreographers all chose to revisit their Khmer classical dance training in their works, said Amrita’s artistic director, Chey Chankethya.

“Chanborey, for instance, is using his lakhaon kaol giant role vocabulary as a medium to talk about disability,” she said.

In the 14-minute dance that Mr. Chanborey performs with a video projection as backdrop, he attempts to express the difficulties that some disabled people face when they try to handle simple tasks such as sitting or standing. The dance is inspired by his father, who is missing one leg, he said. “I’m trying to express how a disabled person struggles to make a living and also to show that he’s my hero.”

Ms. Narim’s dance, “The Edge,” is also inspired by a relative, in her case her grandmother Em Theay, a legendary Khmer classical dancer who started training with the Royal Palace dance company in the 1930s and still teaches today.

The 15-minute work Ms. Narim will perform with her grandmother tells the story of how Ms. Theay was almost killed during the Pol Pot regime when one Khmer Rouge official identified her as a dancer, but was then saved by another official who wanted to keep her alive so she could dance for them.

Ms. Narim’s dance will be performed within a square of metal poles symbolizing the repressive regime.

“I was told that people lived as if in a prison without walls,” she said.

Kang Rithisal, Amrita’s executive director, said that the organization was now planning to start a choreography program to help its dancers develop full-length works of their own.

“These Cambodian choreographers will build further on their works-in-progress, bringing them to the level of full pieces,” he said.

The performances will take place at 7 p.m. at the Department of Performing Arts theater in Phnom Penh.

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