Performers Toe The Line Between Apsara and Modern Dance

The rehearsal began with plies-well, sort-of plies.  For dancers throughout Europe and North America the plie is the de rigueur start of the dancing day, for if one does not bend one’s legs-that is, plie-one simply cannot move. It is an ancient, time-honored ritual that dates back to the French court dances of Louis XIV.

So it was only natural that Bafana Matea, one of six dancers from New York City’s Battery Dance Company in town this week rehearsing with 22 Cambodian dancers for a performance Saturday night at the Chaktomuk Theatre, called first for plies.

He got no response.

Fred Frumberg, the executive director of the NGO Amrita Performing Arts, which is helping produce the show, pulled him quietly aside and said, “We don’t have any plies here.”

Matea, beaming, turned back to the assembled Cambodian crowd and said, “OK, we’re going to do some bending.”

The collaboration is one sign of the new and bubbling interest in innovation among young Cambodian dancers who have dedicated their youth to learning the strict forms of classical Khmer dance forms. And it has all been made possible by the US State Department, which has ramped up its efforts at cultural diplomacy since the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

Cambodia today is unique in that so many artists were killed or died during the regime of Democratic Kampuchea.

The nation’s arts, like so much of the nation itself, were decimated. After the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979, the slow work of rescue and recovery began. Old master teachers were taken out of the rice fields and put back into classrooms, where they have trained new generations of Cambodian dancers. Classical dances have been recorded for posterity on videotape.

In 2003, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the Royal Ballet of Cambodia a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage, which some have taken to be a testament to the success of those years of painstaking reconstruction.

Now some voices are calling for evolution.

“We live in a globalized period,” Chey Chankethya, 22, said after rehearsal on Tuesday. “Cambodian dancers need to live in this globalization. We need to know something besides ourselves,” she said.

Last month, she and eight other Cambodian dancers started a group called “Trey Visai” (“Compass”) to exchange ideas and, eventually, create new choreography.

The Cambodian dancers working with Battery Dance knew virtually nothing of American contemporary dance-one had seen a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, one of America’s most popular and enduring modern dance companies, and another had seen a show by Robert Wilson, a legendary avant-garde theater director.

The Americans, by and large, were no better off.

“The only thing I know about Cambodia is Angkor Wat,” said Sean Scantlebury, a 26-year-old from Barbados who moved to New York when he was three.

For the time being, Cambodian dancers have found working with Battery Dance wonderfully strange. There was the simple strangeness of size; the movements were bigger than what they were accustomed to. Their bodies have been honed for a different kind of line. Hamstrings were too tight for this Western stuff, and toes did not point. Then there were the more complex oddities: having to open ones legs in dance, sharing weight, men and women dancing together, and, most of all, the challenge of having to make one’s own decisions rather than being told what to do. But, all in all, the dancers said, it was a positive newness.

“Before I used to eat something sweet, but now I feel there are people who add some more ingredients,” said Phon Sopheap, 26, who has studied classical Khmer dance for 15 years and teaches at the National School of Fine Arts.

“At first it is difficult, and then we try to follow the movement and we feel more comfortable,” he said.

Like most contemporary American choreographers, Jonathan Hollander, the artistic director of Battery Dance, draws on a variety of styles, including ballet, jazz, hip-hop and other modern techniques.

The son of a classical pianist and an anti-trust lawyer, Hollander grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and didn’t start studying dance until he was in college. He dropped out in 1971 to study on scholarship with choreographer Merce Cunningham in New York City, where he participated in the early, legendary experimental dances of Twyla Tharp. He founded Battery Dance in 1976, in lower Manhattan, not far from Wall Street, at a time when the area was a cultural desert of banks. Since then, his studio has grown into one of the hubs of the downtown dance scene in New York, a site where countless choreographers go to rehearse.

Hollander was a Fulbright lecturer on dance in India in 1992, and has returned to that country three times to perform with his company, always at a financial loss. His big break with government funding, which is nearly unheard of for individual artists in the US, came in 2004, when the State Department footed the bill for a tour of Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan.

“That was the first time I didn’t come home with my credit cards maxed out,” he said. In 2005, he rode on government support to Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia, and earlier this year spent three weeks working in Germany on a post-Holocaust dance project with schoolchildren, also courtesy of the US State Department.

Battery Dance is in Phnom Penh now as part of a six-country tour of Asia.

The State Department is footing most of the $125,000 bill for the tour, with additional contributions from private corporations and plenty of in-kind largesse from local arts organizations and hotels. The InterContinental is putting the troupe up during their stay in Phnom Penh, and the US Embassy here is sponsoring the show.

“The whole point with the cultural performances is mutual understanding,” said Jeff Daigle, public affairs officer at the US Embassy. “We want to expose foreign audiences to American culture,” he added.

Battery Dance is the first American contemporary dance troupe the embassy has sponsored in Cambodia, according to Daigle.

“Dance troupes,” he explained, “are usually more than we can afford.” The other two cultural performances the embassy is sponsoring this year are both jazz groups.  “Money is very tight for cultural programming,” he explained.

Daigle said he had never heard of Battery Dance before the company approached him for support, but a few phone calls to colleagues at other embassies that had programmed the company in the past reassured him.

“They had an excellent reputation,” he said.

After years of neglect, the State Department has rekindled its interest in culture as a vehicle of international diplomacy.

Since 2001, funding for cultural diplomacy has tripled, according to the department.  And on Sept 25, Laura Bush, the US first lady, announced a new “Global Cultural Initiative” to coordinate and expand America’s efforts at cultural diplomacy abroad. She heralded America’s success in “art diplomacy” during the Cold War as an inspiration for the new program.

“Today art has the same power to reduce tensions and to strengthen alliances,” she said.

What the artistic alliance between contemporary US dance and Cambodian traditional dance might look like-not just on stage this Saturday night, but also over the months and years ahead-remains to be seen.  But one thing is clear to Chey Chankethya: “We should love our culture as well,” she said.  “The two must be equals.”

Battery Dance will perform Saturday, Oct 21, at 7 pm at the Chaktomuk Theatre.

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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