Hill Tribe Dance Carries Tradition, Tragedy and a Promise

The rare performance of hill tribe dances and music that the Kok Thlok theater company will present tonight at the French cultural center mainly came out of a promise that choreographer Sok Sovan had made to her husband when he passed away in 2008.

Her husband, Nop Sambouna, was one of the leading choreographers and musicians who rebuilt the Royal University of Fine Arts after the Khmer Rouge regime, gathering the few artists who had survived the regime to train a new generation of performers.

In 2002, he obtained funding from Unesco to document and record hill tribe music and dance in the country.

For him, the project soon turned into a passion, said Ms So­van. He kept making fieldtrips on his own to learn more from the various hill tribes in Mondolkiri, Ratanakkiri and Kratie provinces, researching their particular dance techniques so unlike those of the Khmers, and trying to learn how to make bamboo instruments and play drums to produce sounds typical of their music, she said. Before his death, Nop Sam­bouna made her promise not to let this information be lost.

The opportunity to use his mat­erial recently came up when the Kok Thlok company, to which she belongs, was looking for a new show to stage at the French cul­tural center.

The company of more than 20 mem­bers presents a different type of performance at the center every two months, said managing director Phoeung Kompheak. The group, which first specialized in musical theater yike (a form of Khmer traditional theater), staged a mod­ern spoken theater drama in Jan­uary and a concert in March of Cambodian favorite songs from the 1960s and early ’70s, he said.

So when Ms Sovan suggested us­ing her late husband’s notes, VCDs and music recordings to put together a show of hill tribe dances and music, the company agreed, he added.

This proved easier said than done, said Peang Kanika, who did the musical arrangements.

For example, he said: “When you hold a drum tight, it will give a sound that is different than when you hold it with two fingers. And you must hit it at certain angles to produce the right sounds.”

The sound quality of Mr Sam­bouna’s recordings, which had been done during live performan­ces in hill tribe villages, were not always the best, and this made it hard at times to figure out the mel­ody, Mr Kanika said.’

Moreover, hill tribe dances are not easy to perform, Ms Sovan said.

“Movements require that dan­cers shake their heads while mo­ving their bodies. Plus arms and legs must move front or back in the same direction,” she said, which produces motions that are foreign to dancers formed in the Khmer dance tradition.

Tonight’s program will include a percussion concert and three dances from different hill tribes including the Sa’kal dance from the Stieng minority of Snuol district in Kratie province.

Entitled “The Bamboo Dance,” the show will start at 6:30 pm.

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