“DON’T be beautiful!” the director cries, as dancer Chhoun Chantrea convulses her way across the stage. In another corner, Yon Chantha seems victim to a terrible toothache. Her jaws twitch on invisible hooks that drag her into the space.
These dancers have trained since childhood in classical court regality and controlled grace. But now they work under the eye of Bob Ruijzendaal, a theatre director from the Netherlands.
Since 2008, Ruijzendaal has collaborated with Cambodian dancers to produce original, contemporary shows. Their third annual performance, Movin’, premiers Saturday at Sovanna Phum theatre in Phnom Penh.
All movement in the show comes from the dancers – particularly You Davy, who prefers choreography to performance. “It’s my first time to make dance as a partner,” Davy says. “I need to understand what I need and want.”
Ruijzendall arranges and encourages, tasking dancers beyond their comfort zones. He also selects the show music, which varies from sparse and percussive to sensually lush.
The results uncover effort in what often looks effortless, and pose questions about classical dance’s restraint. Three women become a wall of stone-faced apsaras. They rock unnaturally from leg to leg, like tipping statues. Tiny jerks and jiggles strain their faces beyond the effect of a natural mask.
Movin’ empowers simple exchanges, ordinarily too familiar for contemplation. When Ruijzendall explored visual contact between performer and audience, his dancers reacted so powerfully that an entire segment is now a solo for eyes alone.
Round-faced innocent Chhoun Chantrea meanders sweetly before audience faces, gazing them into flirtation. When she finally switches her attention to stunned partner Khon Chan-sithyka, he scarcely knows what to do with his body.
Ruijzendaal’s third year of directing in Phnom Penh confronts him with local dancers’ challenges. “Not many people tell them that less is more,” he observes. As performers struggle to evolve without abandoning tradition, he likes to remind them that stunning athleticism alone will not make art. “Get back to the basics of classical,” he says. “Learn to be silent in a new way.”
Meanwhile, the dancers continue to bravely explore: partnering across genders, and finding the strength to simply be themselves on stage. Ruijzendaal’s great secret, and lasting gift, is that by seeking extremes his performers discover unexpected ways to be beautiful.
Movin’ premiers April 3-4 at Sovanna Phum (166 Street 99 at Street 484). Tickets are $2 for locals, $6 for foreigners. Call 097-860-8856 for reservations.