The performance staged on Wednesday night at the National Museum was a first in Phnom Penh.
The show presented by the “Children of the Bassac” dance company was not held to welcome dignitaries, mark a special occasion, or present a new work, but as a simple marketing effort to launch an actual performing-art season in the capital. And since Cambodia attracts a steady flow of tourists interested in knowing more about the country, guests at the museum performance included business people as well as hospitality and tourism industry professionals.
“Phnom Penh has become culturally hip,” said Prim Phloeun, executive director of the Cambodian Living Arts organization, which was behind the event.
“I believe that there’s a fair number of tourists who, of course, go to Angkor, but also spend several days in Phnom Penh,” he said. “They come here for a certain period of time and are looking for something to do.”
Artists groups such as the Sovanna Phum Art Association-the only one offering weekly shows at its theater-or the Kok Thlok Theatre Company, which tours in remote locations, are struggling to maintain a regular schedule of performances, Mr Phloeun said.
“One forgets that they are artists and excellent at what they do, but that their specialty is not management or marketing: they need support,” he said.
The idea behind the museum show was, he said “to create a model for sustainable development in the field of arts and culture.”
A French-Canadian Cambodian with a business degree in international management, Mr Phloeun developed the sales strategy that established Artisans d’Angkor as a label for quality silk and craft products in the early 2000s, and led the marketing campaign to stage Cambodia’s first Broadway-style musical “Where Elephants Weep” in 2008.
Wishing to promote CLA’s Children of the Bassac dance company, he looked for a special venue for about 150 to 200 people and remembered that the National Museum had previously held a few performances in front of the main entrance of the storied public building.
“Tourists don’t necessarily want to sit down in an actual theater. Since they may come to Asia only once in their lives or rarely, they want a unique experience” which an outdoor show staged in front of this magnificent 90-year-old building would provide, he said.
Former museum director Hab Touch, now director general for cultural affairs at the Ministry of Culture, agreed.
Once they have visited the royal palace and the museum, he said, “Tourists would like to see other forms or Khmer art. We think that the National Museum can promote tangible as well as intangible heritage.”
But in order to attract an audience, such a show must be held in a special atmosphere, said Suon Buon Rith of Amrita Performing Arts, the organization that produced Wednesday night’s show.
“We wanted to set up some lighting decorations to create an authentic ambiance, bring the audience into another world of Cambodia…and see a performance against this great building of the 1920s,” he said.
This included lighting the museum’s entrance walkway from the street to the seating area with candles and using soft lights with blue and red filters reminiscent of the colors of the Cambodian flags displayed on stage. The Singaporean light-and-sound company, DLP Audio, volunteered their services for the event.
At different times during the show, the artists arrived from the back of the audience and at times talked to spectators, which added to the atmosphere of intimacy that the organizers wanted to create. Moreover, the seating area was set up so that no spectator was far from the 12-by-5 meter stage.
The program consisted of several classical and traditional dances to give visitors a sample of Cambodia’s various styles, said singer Ieng Sithul who started teaching the young dancers from the Bassac Building-which is home to poor families in Phnom Penh-in the mid-1990s on his own and has done so with CLA support since 2002.
“It was not easy to choose the dances but those young artists are well-trained, and we are able to perform different dances in every show,” he said.
Dr Philippe Arsac, a French volunteer in Cambodia, said that he enjoyed the upbeat pace of the show and was especially fascinated by the folk dances and male masked-classical dancers.
“What we usually see [abroad] is Cambodian classical ballet” performed by women, he said.
Stephen Pierce of the American Cambodia Business Council and Richard Gillet of the Thalias Group and Topaz restaurant spoke of the lack of choice in quality performances in the city and were quite enthusiastic about the concept of regular shows at the museum.
But Thomas Preischl of the travel agency Asian Trails and Carla Chabert of Diethelm Travel pointed out how difficult it would be for them to book groups unless there are shows daily.
Organizers hope that this first show will lead to several performances per week given by various artist companies and featuring diverse types of performances.
But for the moment, they are focusing on one show per week to be staged throughout this coming dry season.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)