It begins with Sam Sathya, one of Cambodia’s veteran star dan-cers, performing a few familiar classical moves.
She is soon joined by three of the country’s other premier dancers who, by the time the piece ends, will have taken traditional Cambodian dance into very contemporary directions.
The dance, which is being staged tonight and is entitled “Khmeropedies II,” carries the audience through a debate on traditional dance versus modern forms and concludes with a solo by Sam Sathya on an unexpected note.
The creation of French-Cambodian choreographer Emmanuelle Phuon, the dance is the highlight of a 50-minute show that will begin at 6:30 pm at the National Theater, which is loated near the Spark Entertainment Center’s parking lot on Mao Tse Tuong boulevard.
Admission to the show is free and will also include dance performances by students from the Secondary School of Fine Arts and Cambodian hip-hop group Tiny Toones.
According to Phuon, the night’s featured dance was inspired by the numerous suggestions made by the four performers: Chey Chankethya, Chumvan Sodhachivy, Phon Sopheap and Sam Sathya.
“Khmeropedies II” consists of a series of sketches on eclectic music. This ranges from a light song by French singer Yves Mon-
tand and music by classical composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, to “industrial music” by the German group Einsturzende Neubauten.
While the dance is an exploration into paths that Khmer classical dance can take to give birth to contemporary works, it is meant as a suggestion rather than a statement, Phuon said. “Although it’s a bit serious at times, I wanted this to be rather light and fun,” she added.
The entire show is designed as a casual evening among friends, rather than a formal event, Phuon said.
In their duo during the main performance, Chey Chankethya and Phon Sopheap go from being playful to serious, moving about in movements at times reminiscent of Khmer classical dance but with a pace and energy that is truly modern.
In her solo, Chumvan Sodhachivy rediscovers the distinctive hand, arm and leg movements of Khmer classical dance, nearly isolating her limbs as if they were disconnected from her body. In one dance segment, she quickly motions her hands at angles that drive home the extreme hand and finger flexibility that Cambodian dancers must acquire.
As Sam Sathya “reminds” the other dancers of the importance of classical dance later in the piece, they go back to practicing traditional movements but soon break away into contemporary variations of the strict
Phuon was herself trained in Khmer classical dance as a child prior to 1975—classes were held at the Royal Palace, she said—before going to study Western dance in France and the US. While in the US, she was, for seven years, a member of the dance company of Mikhail Bar-
yshnikov, who is considered one of the 20th-century’s greatest classical dancers.
At his recommendation, Phuon conscriped from the White Oak Dance Center in the US a three-week workshop to design tonight’s dance. Support from the Asian Cultural Council enabled the four dancers to join her at the center in August 2008, rehearse for three weeks in Cambodia this month and perform the piece tonight.
When Amrita Performing Arts—which is producing the show—became involved with the project last year, the NGO had been looking for dance professionals who could help Cambodian dancers experiment with contemporary dance, director Fred Frumberg said.
“But it had to be people who respected Cambodia’s dance tradition,” he said.
Since the country’s arts tradition and evolution was interrupted by the Khmer Rouge era, it was essential to first concentrate on the preservation of cultural traditions after Pol Pot’s defeat, Frumberg said.
“One had to wait until the time was right to move forward towards creativity,” he said.
Now that dance has reached that stage, Cambodians must work with professionals who will help them with the natural evolution of their own dance tradition, Frumberg said.
And Phuon did just that, the four dancers said. “When I rehearsed with others in the past, they just introduced something new to us: they did not use what we have and merge [forms] together,” Chey Chankethya said.
“But Emmanuelle Phuon…values our classical dance and the original forms we’ve learnt since childhood” and sought suggestions, she said.
“I do not wish just to learn, learn and learn from others…. I am a person who wants to keep her culture and also has something to share” with professionals from other countries, Chey Chankethya said.
Before venturing into contemporary forms, dancers must master Cambodian dance to use it as a base, Chumvan Sodhachivy said. “Then creation becomes a good process. But we must travel a long way before we can launch our own [contemporary] styles” she said.
The four dancers believe that contemporary dance should be taught at the Royal University of Fine Arts along with traditional dances. And students are ready for it, said Phon Sopheap who teaches at RUFA.
“Artists cannot…repeat the same forms forever,” said Sam Sathya, also a RUFA teacher. “We need to improve and develop new styles. Otherwise, dance will stagnate and, she said, “This kind of [stagnation] could kill the arts sector.”