From the moment the five performers get on stage, a wave of energy seems to spread over the room, carrying a profound joy of being human and having bodies to celebrate life.
Dancing to original music mostly played on Cambodian traditional instruments, they soon create a world in which all is possible and any obstacle offers a new way of doing things.
As they glide in movements that combine contemporary and Cambodian classical dance, they use their bodies as they are—tall or short, maimed or intact—to express the sorrow, valor and love that fill people’s lives.
“I don’t use my wheelchair as a prop,” said Kim Sathia, one of the performers with the NGO Epic Arts UK, which is staging “The Return” at the International School of Phnom Penh on Saturday at 6:30 pm.
“I consider it as my legs, because when I move my hands, the wheelchair must move as well,” explained Kim Sathia, who was a classical and folk dancer until she was disabled in a car accident in 1997.
Based on the Cambodian folktale “Wolf Mountain,” the story is about animals being terrorized by an unknown beast in the forest. A villager discovers that the beast is in fact a dog that has become ferocious after being mistreated by his masters. He reconciles with the dog and brings it back to the village.
The dance at times expresses the characters’ emotions rather than portraying an actual episode from the tale, as Nhim Sophara mimes parts of the story. Nhim Sophara, who is also a visual artist, has painted the show’s six backdrops.
The dance was created last year with funding from the British Embassy by the Epic Arts’ group of able-bodied and disabled artists. “My father was disabled and I was brought up around physical disability,” said British dancer Katie MacCabe, who launched Epic Arts in Phnom Penh in 2003 and is the only expatriate dancer in the show.
As an adolescent, she wondered why able-bodied and disabled people seemed to be kept apart in society, and looked for a way to bring them together. This led her to study community dance and later work with the “integrated” dance company Candoco in England, which featured both able-bodied and disabled dancers.
Creating the dance last year was meant both to produce a work of art to show Cambodian audiences what could be done when able-bodied and disabled artists perform together, MacCabe said.
The dance was conceived over a three-week period by British choreographer Jo Parkes, a leader in the integrated dance field. Working with the artists, Parkes crafted a dance that drew out their natural movements, MacCabe said.
Unlike classical dance that dictates precise movements, she said, “this dance form very much looks at what dance movement is within somebody and tries to bring that out—they really own the movement when they dance it.”
The music was written by British composer Christopher Benstead and 12 Cambodian musicians who work with the NGOs Amrita Performing Arts and Cambodian Living Arts in Phnom Penh. Benstead would bring to rehearsal a melodic fragment for the musicians to develop on traditional instruments.
The result, Benstead wrote earlier this year, is not “East-Meets-West fusion but rather blended and married sounds to create a rich and varied soundtrack.” Due to a shortage of funds, the recorded soundtrack is used for the shows, with the musicians playing live with the performers only on rare occasions.
The five artists have presented “The Return” 12 times since October and, with about a week of rehearsals before each show, have perfected it in the process, said performer Pon Denh. Disabled due to polio, he goes from crutch to wheelchair during the dance, at one point using the back of his wheelchair to do a backward flip.
During the dance, the artists create a universe in which physical impediments become minor details instead of obstacles. At one stage, classical dancer Tan Mathom slightly moves a finger and Nhim Sophara goes into a sequence of movements, giving no indication to the audience that he actually is deaf and was being signaled to by Tan Mathom.
While any new work presents its own challenge for artists, performing “The Return” has been especially difficult for Kim Sathia and Pon Denh. “I have to move my chair to specific places to allow the other artists to dance,” said Kim Sathia. Her hands hurt from quickly turning the wheels of the chair but she must not let her face reflect this and must keep on expressing fear or happiness as the script requires, she said.
During the first rehearsals, Pon Denh’s crutch kept slipping on the polished stage floor. He overcame this, and got unexpected rewards. “I never thought that my life could change in such a bright way, and that relations with friends and also neighbors would improve,” Pon Denh said. People started viewing him differently after seeing him on stage, he said.
The aim of this “new dance and new music sound” is to tell the audience not to stigmatize disabled people, said Tan Mathom, a dance teacher at the Sovanna Phum Art Association. “We need to provide them with a chance to take part in social development,” he said.
Epic Arts has opened a cafe in Kampot town where the menu is illustrated with sign language, and MacCabe gives dance classes to disabled people on the upper floor. She hopes to eventually expand into an arts center offering classes for disabled people.
The artists will perform “The Return” in Thailand later this month, in Laos in November and in Vietnam in December.