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Changing the face of dance

Relatively new in Cambodia, contemporary dance is making inroads with performers and audiences. But its roots remain steadfastly traditional

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Belle in rehersals at the French Cultural Centre this week.

Contemporary dance is a new phenomenon in Cambodia, but it is catching on fast. A contemporary dance production, "Dansez Roam", will be held at Chenla Theatre Friday and Saturday - a collaboration between the French Cultural Centre and Amrita Performing Arts.

The main dance performances of the night will tell the story of a young Khmer woman who loses her children to the Khmer Rouge regime and is left alone when her husband leaves her.

It is a sad tale, but a beautiful, beguiling production, with 24-year-old dancer Chumvan Sodhachivy, or Belle for short, in the lead role.

Belle is currently serving six months as an associated artist at the French Cultural Centre, and this production will mark the culmination of the partnership.

The young performer, who graduated as a classical dancer from the University of Fine Arts, says contemporary dance is very new in Cambodia and has only been around three to four years.

Belle first picked up some moves on overseas dancing trips to Poland, Indonesia, Sweden and the United States, but says she brings back only what is "appropriate" for Cambodia.

She describes contemporary dance as "freer" than classical Khmer dance and says it gives artists more scope to express their personal feelings.

The old people are slowly coming around and the young are more interested.

"We are young, and we want to do what we want. We don't want too much direction. But we have to follow the tradition very carefully, very exactly," Belle said. "With classical dance we go in a straight line, but with contemporary we turn right, left and back again."
Fred Frumberg, executive director of Amrita Performing Arts, says after the war the Cambodian arts community focused on reviving traditional art forms, and that is why the foray into contemporary dance took so long.

In 2003, Robam Borann - a form of Khmer classical dance  - was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO, and this helped mark the success of the preservation efforts, allowing new dance forms into the arena.

Frumberg says the technical skills of Khmer classical dance have equipped students well for a move into contemporary dance, a point with which Belle strongly agrees.

"[Khmer dance] is our base, our background, and it is automatic. That is why we are mixing classical with contemporary. All of us are classical dancers, but we are just pushing things one more level. We will still keep classical because if we kill classical, we will kill ourselves, too. But we can still grow."

While Frumberg says it is important not to move "too quickly" and risk damaging traditional dance, he thinks this is unlikely as so far all of his team's contemporary dance productions have been strongly rooted in classical vocabulary.

"We never do this with more sacred repertory such as the Apsara dance, as this would never be allowed. Nor is it our intention to change the classical repertory but rather give young artists the tools to create their own Cambodia contemporary vocabulary," he said.

So far, there are no contemporary dance schools or teachers in Cambodia, and the Royal University of Fine Arts does not offer any courses.

Frumberg says as well as training young dancers, it has also been necessary to educate the audience to the attractions of contemporary dance.

Belle agrees:  "The old people are slowly coming around and the young are getting more interested. A lot of young people tell me they want to learn, but if they want to, they need to learn about our traditional dance first."



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