Shadow Spectacle

Handmade leather and paper puppets, 2 meters tall, crinkle their way across the stage, dancing in sync with the music to tell the tale of a boy with only one eye who cannot hear, and his twin sister, who has one ear but cannot see.

This will be the scene on stage at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh on Saturday night, when French theater group Compagnie l’Aurore and Phnom Penh’s Kok Thlok artists’ association present the fruits of their first collaboration, a show that gives traditional Khmer shadow puppetry a modern French twist.

The premiere of ‘An Eye, An Ear’ in Battambang City on December 2 (Sebastien Gabard)
The premiere of ‘An Eye, An Ear’ in Battambang City on December 2 (Sebastien Gabard)

The production—“Un Oeil, Une Oreille” (“An Eye, An Ear”)—which premiered last week in Battambang City, is a story of separation and reunification, the story of two children, one of whom experiences the world only through sight, the other only through sound.

“It’s a mythology story about two children separated when they’re born and then trying to join all their life,” explained performance director Francois Dubois of Compagnie l’Aurore, which is based in the southern French town of La Reole. “At the end, they will succeed, but they will be different persons.”

Mr. Dubois’s production uses the contrast between the “ear” and the “eye” to meld auditory and visual elements, as well as an interplay between French and Cambodian influences. Taken as a whole, the show is a bid to modernize one of Cambodia’s oldest art forms, one that is struggling to find a foothold in a world of television soap operas and Facebook.

Sbek thom—a traditional form of Khmer puppetry dating back to the Angkorian era and recognized on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage—uses flat, intricately carved leather figures to tell stories of ancient deities from behind illuminated white screens.

After first witnessing the Kok Thlok artists practice sbek thom in Phnom Penh four years ago, Mr. Dubois was inspired to play with the art form and integrate it into his own work.

“I’m not Cambodian, so I can’t do sbek thom. It’s not my tradition. But I wanted to have a little bit of this energy inside the show,” he said.

Puppeteers perform in the traditional sbek thom style. (Sebastien Gabard)
Puppeteers perform in the traditional sbek thom style. (Sebastien Gabard)

He first conceived the 50-minute show two years ago, but it began to take shape over the course of an intense period of collaboration and rehearsal starting in October. It features three Cambodians from Kok Thlok and three French artists from Compagnie l’Aurore, who take turns manipulating the puppets, singing songs and playing instruments to tell the story of the twins.

The traditional pinpeat music central to sbek thom is still present, but so are elements of Egyptian and Iranian music, drawing on the French performers’ own heritage and interests.

“We wanted to make a fusion of their universe, their approach of music with Khmer music,” Mr. Dubois said.

The show also draws on Khmer dance and some of the themes of sbek thom theater, though the traditional leather puppets appear only at the very end. During the rest of the show, modern 3-D puppets are used. The puppeteers are also less visible than sbek thom practitioners, who make little effort to hide their motions.

“There is inspiration from sbek thom, just not in the same traditional way,” Mr. Dubois said.

A puppet in the show’s premiere in Battambang City (Sebastien Gabard)
A puppet in the show’s premiere in Battambang City (Sebastien Gabard)

Peang Kanika, a Cambodian musician and performer in “An Eye, An Ear” who has been a shadow puppeteer in the Kok Thlok group since it was founded in 2006, said that because many people have difficulty grasping the meaning of traditional sbek thom, the new production’s fresh approach would be a boon to the art form.

“It seems hard for audiences that watch sbek thom to understand it, because they have to watch the shadows on the white cloth and read subtitles,” said Mr. Kanika. “It can be a very slow emotion for them. In the foreign show, the action helps convey the meaning to people.”

Mr. Dubois said he hoped the adaptations would increase interest in sbek thom and keep it alive. “It must continue to exist,” he said. “In France, we had a lot of tradition, but there is no more. There is modern art, OK. But we don’t have tradition of 12 centuries. That’s a very rich experience.”

“An Eye, An Ear” will be performed at the Institut Francais at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. The two companies will then bring the production to France for a string of performances.

(Additional reporting by Buth Kimsay)

[email protected]

© 2015, All rights reserved.