Stepping Into Tradition

Little girls who grew up destined to dance as their mothers and grandmothers before and young men for whom classical and folkloric art defines their lives will give flesh-and-blood meaning to the abstractions of Cultural Days 1998.

While officials, experts and academics will spend April 3 through 5 at the Chaktomuk Theater debating “The Role of Culture in the Improvement of Peace in the World,” eager young Cambodians will bring the culture to life through the steps and story of the Jataka Vessantara.

Panel discussions and presentations on the achievements of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts will be enlivened with performances and concerts by students and teachers from the School of Fine Arts.

Learned panelists will address such issues as fragmented social relationships that undermine Cambodian norms and references, op­ening the door to violent behavior. Performers will delicately execute centuries-old rituals that would have been familiar to the residents of Angkor.

In a vast rehearsal hall at the fine-arts campus in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district, the performance is being readied.

Veteran teachers sit on mats among the musicians, watching with an eagle’s eye as the dancers glide through the Jataka. The story follows the Buddha through his 547th incarnation in which he gains the merits that move him toward enlightenment. A perennial fa­vorite among Khmers, it describes the Bud­dha’s extreme act of renunciation as he gives away his children and his wife.

The “black hat” in the story, the wicked far­mer who takes the Buddha’s little children to be his servants and beats on them with a stick, is tutored during rehearsals by the best guide—his own father. A sprightly and ebullient 60-year-old, Pring Sokhorn started dancing professionally when he was a teen-ager and still throws himself into the comic roles of Khmer dance like a youngster. Now he delights in his mission as one of the wise people who pass their cultural experience on to young Cambodians.

He demonstrates to his son, Pring Sonisay, how to portray the bumbling gait of the farmer who takes the Buddha’s children. The slow-witted responses and clownish capers draw laughter from the young dancers watching at the side of the rehearsal hall.

Pring Sonisay seeks to faithfully reproduce his father’s gestures but confesses “This is not easy for me.” He is an experienced dancer and teacher of dance himself, and his professional career peaked when he was featured in an Untac video in 1993. But the comedic effects that flow naturally from his father’s movements need to be repeated with painstaking care. “It is good to make people laugh, but learning to do this is serious study.”

“I like to perform as a clown,” ag­rees Pring Sokhorn, “to make people laugh and be happy with the show.”

Dancing has always been a source of joy for the older man. In the dark days of the 1970s, interrogators of the Khmer Rouge disputed his statement that he was a professional performer. Pring Sokhorn’s eyes twinkle: “I agreed to perform one of the classic Khmer stories for them and I danced every part—men, women, children, classic, folkloric and comedy.

“When I finished, they agreed that I was indeed an actor—but they sent me to work in the fields anyway,” he laughs. The hard years time passed with long hours of labor and informal performances for his co-workers and, Pring Sokhorn remembers “I prayed 10 times a day for the red curtain [of the theater] to return.”

As he watches the two little girls who are portraying Buddha’s children, Pring Sokhorn reflects on the new generation of Khmer dancers. “The students here are paying so much attention to learning their art, I am very optimistic for the future,” he comments.

“It is my hope for them that they become more famous than the older generation.”

Each year an invitation goes out on national television for youngsters to try out for places at the school of fine arts and Cambodians trek to the capital to be assessed for their physical suitability and the depth of interest in performing arts. Those accepted are monitored for their potential during their first two years of study and the most likely youngsters then are selected.

One of the eager youngsters watching the lead dancers rehearse is Tin Chansotheavy, 12. Trim in her blue sarong secured with a silver belt, she talks of her dreams for a future on stage.

“When I was a little girl sometimes I would see dancing on television and I wanted to dance like that,” she says. “And my mother told me about being a dancer.”

Tin Chansotheavy’s pedigree as a performer is impeccable. Her mother, Yuk Samonnareth, was a dancer at the Cambodian royal court and now lives in France. Tin Chansotheavy lives with her father and has attended the fine-arts school for four years. Two brothers are also studying at the school, one concentrating on classical music and the other on folkloric music.

As she works on perfecting her dance movements in the mornings and studies academics in the afternoons, Tin Chansotheavy dreams about going to France to dance for her mother. ”Maybe if I become an important dancer and a champion actress, one day I can travel to see her,” she whispers. “She has never seen me dance.”

The opportunity to perform is the missing link for a lot of Khmer artistes.

Delphine Kassem, a French woman who came to Cambodia six years ago to teach theater arts realized that even the most talented students had few professional opportunities. So, she says “Rather than see them selling bananas in the market, I built a theater.” The Magic Circus, as it is known to Westerners, is the home of Sovanna Poom, which means Golden Age in Khmer. Located in Toul Sleng at 111 Street 360, the theater offers many forms of traditional popular theater.

“When we first started, there was a lot nobody knew about Khmer theater,” Kassem recalls. “But we found old people who remembered the tradition and we read the works of Pech Tum Kravel, who has been living in the US but who knew everything about Khmer popular theater.

“Gradually, we were able to reconstruct our knowledge of the culture and give Cambodian performers an opportunity to demonstrate their art. It was very satisfying.”

While the academics gathering for their three-day seminar at the Chaktomuk Theater will discuss progress made to retrieve Khmer culture and values from the older generation and imbue them in Cambodians dislocated from their roots by warfare and repression, Proeung Chhieng takes a simpler approach.

He is the Dean of the Faculty of Choreographic Arts at the school and finds himself presiding over hundreds of young dancers in a student body that totals 600 performers. Bedeviled by funding problems, administration chores and a constant demand for public-relations attention, Proeung Chhieng is a whirlwind of activity. But that doesn’t prevent him from presiding over important rehearsals and he watches intently the development of the Jatarka performance for the seminar.

From time to time, he leaves his seat at the side of the hall and corrects the dancers’ movements. The senior teachers watch him attentively and the students listen solemnly and are swift to obey his instructions.

Even the clowning—and the veteran dancer Pring Sokhorn is now coaching a troupe of young men bounding around in the guise of a pack of dogs—is meticulous. Pring Sokhorn drops to the floor. lithe as a teen-ager, to show how a dog pricks its ears when scenting something new. His troupe of dancers mimic his movements then chase him vigorously around the rehearsal space, snapping at him as he leaps for an open window. The watching students laugh uproariously while the “dogs” wipe the sweat from their faces and prepare to repeat the scene one more time.

“We have revived the traditional forms and we have updated them to make them more in line with today,” reflects Dean Proeung Chhieng, summarizing his task of bringing Khmer culture into greater prominence in Cambodian society.

“In the mornings the teachers teach the students and in the afternoon the teachers teach the teachers,” he smiles. “We can all learn.”

His words are echoed by senior teacher Pring Sokhorn as he looks out over a sea of young students: “We have to give them all what we have.”


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