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Tuning music and the body

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Combining jazz with traditional Khmer music and dance, French musician Louis Sclavis, Phare Ponleu Selpak and Belle improvise an unusual treat.

Photo by: SOVANN PHILONG

Louis Sclavis, Belle and Phare Ponleu Selpak during rehearsal at the French Cultural Centre on Tuesday.

Dance and music are on the program when the French Cultural Centre opens its garden to an unusual trio this Saturday: Belle, a Khmer dancer who graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts last year, 10 musicians from the traditional Khmer band Phare Ponleu Selpak and Louis Sclavis, a French jazz giant and a passionate fan of improvisation.

Sclavis, 55, is visiting Cambodia for the first time, and he has much more experience in improvisation than his young Cambodian partners.

At rehearsals prior to the big event, the trio learns to work and create together, and to discover that in the tradition of improvisation, things are not strictly fixed.

Getting in sync

When Sclavis starts playing, Belle starts dancing. He plunges into the music - he becomes the music - and Belle choreographs her emotions.

Her arms and hands twist like lotus petals swept up by the wind. Her body performs the slow and graceful movements of the Apsaras. Suddenly, she breaks the ancestral rules. She wiggles her shoulders, her chest vibrates discreetly, she moves fast, she introduces a contemporary repertoire.

Sclavis follows her with his eyes; sometimes he changes his rhythm in order to accompany her movements. Sometimes, he moves away from her. She feels it, then she stops dancing and marks her movements with a gesture, concentrating on what she wants to express.

She tries to find her way and to simultaneously respect the freedom of the musician.

The art of improv

The rehearsal tunes the dancer - the body -  with the musician - the instrument.

"If you have your rhythm, which is not mine, it is not a problem. We do not have to be always the same. I use my own vocabulary, and so do you," Sclavis tells Belle at the end of the piece.

"Improvisation is the capacity to invent the music immediately and in the moment," Sclavis added after the rehearsal.

Improvisation

is the capacity to invent the music

immediately.

"I try to make Belle move out of her traditional universe. And I make the musicians hear another way to play. I perform, I let it go, I put some speed, I slow down. This is like writing. The aim is to get a good composition."

Belle understands the principles.

When she first met Sclavis, he made her listen to different styles of music. They agreed on a panel of styles, but Belle is unaware in what order the music will be played. She prepares herself and is ready for when the different styles of music come. And she seems to enjoy this challenge because she says she is eager to discover new ways of thinking, feeling and moving - to discover what she calls "the spirit inside the body".

Sclavis leads the Phare Ponleu Selpak band the same way and with the same success.

He gives the tempo and plays an entrancing and sensual melody that will be the first theme of the performance. He organizes the sounds of the xylophones, the drums, the flute, and gives marks to the musicians.  He is the conductor and the score at the same time.

"There are two parts in this piece. In the first one, I play the melody. I improvise a little and when I make a sign to you, we start the second part of the piece," Sclavis advises the musicians before inviting them to improvise. 

The result is that the music carries the public into another world, the world of its own imagination.

The cafe-concert improvisation will take place Saturday at the French Cultural Centre at 6:30pm.

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