Dancers in the Dark

Sam Neang and Patricia Deschaumes started tossing numbers at each other. “Maybe 150? No, much, much more,” said one to the other.

Finally the Cambodian stage manager and the French lighting designer agreed that about 200 km of cables were used to light Angkor Wat and provide sound and stage lighting for the Nuits d’Angkor last weekend’s annual night event in the Angkor Archeological Park organized by the French Cultural Center, in cooperation the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

In its fifth consecutive year, the show took place under the towers of Angkor Wat. Both the cultural center and teams from the National Theater and the Royal University of Fine Arts went out of their way to make this a very special event.

As in previous years, French and Cambodian artists performed.

But this time, FCC Director Guy Issanjou worked to give artists the opportunity to experience the emotions embodied in the art of each other’s country, he said.

The outcome was French modern dancers, seemingly weightless and free of human constraints, floating in harmony with millennia-old music usually associated with unmovable dance patterns.

Invited by Issanjou, French choreographer Jean-Claude Gallotta, whose ballets are in the Paris Opera’s repertoire, decided to create modern dances on Khmer traditional music.

A couple of months ago, Gallotta met Proeung Chhieng, the dean of RUFA’s Faculty of Choreographic Arts who was touring France with Cambodian artists. They agreed that Gallotta would choreograph six dances without music and, when his company arrived in Phnom Penh, RUFA’s musicians watched the 10 dancers perform and picked the most appropriate traditional music to accompany them.

For dancers who have never had the chance to work on live music, the experience was wonderful, said Gallotta.

“The musicians would get excited as they played and the dancers would respond, reaching out for new heights,” he said.

Since the last dance was in a six-time rhythm, which does not exist in Khmer traditional music, the Cambodian musicians created a piece for that dance, Proeung Chhieng said.

Gallotta’s dancers from France, Japan, Korea, Colombia and the US dressed in white, in sharp contrast with the traditional costumes of the Cambodian dancers performing in the second part of the show.

The Cambodian artists planned to stage excerpts from the Reamker the Cambodian version of the Indian-epic tale Ramayana  dressed in the age-old scintillating colors.

On Dec 17 and 19, Lakhaon Kaol male dancers presented the Chambang Weyreap, which was produced earlier this year by Amrita Performing Arts through US Embassy funding.

On Dec 18, male and female dancers performed Reamlak Choupleak.

In spite of the difference in dance styles and costumes, the limited number of spotlights meant that the same color filters would have to be used throughout the evening, said Sylvain Fabry, lighting designer for the Gallotta company.

Fabry and Sam Neang, the stage manager for all the French Cultural Center’s special events, agreed on amber, blue and white as best suited for the program, he said.

This left Angkor Wat for Deschaumes to light up.

This was her first visit to Cambodia, at Issanjou’s request.

In spite of her 22 years of experience in the field, “the monument’s beauty and immensity at first was a shock,” she said.

Deschaumes treated Angkor Wat as a backdrop since the resources available did not make it possible to change lighting for each dance, she said.

However at Fabry and Sam Neang’s request, she was able to light up only the lower galleries for Gallotta’s ballets, and to illuminate the towers for the Cambodian dancers, using gold and scarlet to enhance Angkor Wat’s bronze and grey tones.

For the second year in a row, Jean-Louis Larcebeau, who is in charge of training programs at the Avignon’s institute of stage techniques in France, helped RUFA’s teams improve on last year’s setup.

The seating platforms were reinforced with metal; speakers moved to improve sound quality; and the number of generators brought up to five, with one reserved for emergencies, he said.

Rather than these occasional visits, Larcebeau said he hopes to turn this assistance into a training program on stage techniques in Cambodia.

There were 1,500 seats on Dec 17 and 19, and 800 on Dec 18. The three performances were sold out.

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