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Keeping Khmer theatre alive

Determined elders vow to pass on their knowledge of traditional Khmer Lakhaon Pol Srey theatre to the next generation of young Cambodians

Photo by: MOM KUNTHEAR

Young students perform a theatre dance with their teacher Kin Yin

MORE than 40 young men and women are playing traditional Khmer music and dancing at the Kean Svay Krov pagoda in Tuol Trout village, in Kandal province's Kien Svay district. A few elderly women are supervising the youth to make sure they perform the correct steps and hit the right notes.

Kin Yin, 72, has been teaching young girls the traditional Khmer Lakhaon Pol Srey variation of theatre at the pagoda since 1998 and has recently started teaching students from poor families in the hope of passing the knowledge on to the next generation of young Khmers.

"I started a new group in early 2008 and my students come from poor families," she said, adding that sometimes her proteges miss classes because they have to work to support their families.

While Lakhaon Pol Srey theatre is both very difficult to teach and to learn, it is an integral part of traditional Khmer culture.

"The other teachers and I have volunteered to teach young people Khmer theatre because we want to share our knowledge," she said.

Practice makes perfect

"It is more difficult than studying the alphabet," she said. "If students can't make

their hands soft to bend their fingers back and know all the art of the theatre they will be unable to perform," she said.

If students can’t bend their fingers back ... they will be unable to perform.

"I usually tell all young girls that they have to know about Khmer theatre because it is a part of the Khmer culture and it is more important for them to know it than to know Western culture," she said.
Appeal for support

Kin Yin is adamant that she wants the government to support Lakhaon Pol Srey theatre because she is concerned that the knowledge may soon be lost to Cambodian people.

"I want the government to help us and pay attention to our activities because we face many problems," she said, "We have a unique culture and we should not let it be overtaken by other cultures from overseas."

Somrith Chandara, 16, who has been learning Lakhoan Pol Srey at the pagoda since 2006, said she is very happy to have the chance to learn about Khmer theatre because it is rare and not many people know about it."This is very important to me because I want to perform for other people and show them about Khmer theater," she said. "I hope that one day I can perform to an international audience so that they too can learn about our culture.''

TRADITIONAL LAKHAON POL SREY THEATRE IN DETAIL

Photo by: MOM KUNTHEAR

Somrith Chabdara

Lakhaon Pol Srey emerged as an all-female version of the masked male dance Lakhaon Kaol, a pantomimed interpretation of the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana legend that is a staple of classical Cambodian culture. The performers have no speaking parts and generally have to execute their movements much faster than those performing other traditional Khmer classical dance forms. Lakhaon Pol Srey is accompanied by a Pin Peath band, with performers singing words and choruses in sync with the dancers' physical gestures. Complementing the dancers are two male comedians. There are also female teachers or an older man who recite lines in between scenes, giving direction to the dancers. Some researchers believe Lakhaon Pol Srey was first performed several hundred years ago when Udong was Cambodia's capital, and that the form can only be found in parts of Kandal province, where it is thought to have originated in local pagodas. Lakhaon Pol Srey, along with other classical Khmer dance and theatre forms, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.

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