All the buildings are red. Verdant trees and flower beds bloom in the newly designed garden in the middle of campus. Even with exams approaching in a few weeks, traditional Cambodian songs can be heard coming from many of the buildings. Young female classical dancers are practising with their instructor on an open stage. In a nearby classroom, other students are practising the operas Yike and Bassac, a piece that is gaining popularity with students from the provinces.
“Students from the countryside love art more than those from the city,” says Sieng Vieng, vice-director of the Secondary School of Fine Arts, located 5km from downtown Phnom Penh.
“Because there have been few urban students interested in Bassac opera and Yike musical theatre over the past two years, we have selected students from Takeo and Kampong Speu provinces for these two courses,” Sieng Vieng says.
As many as 1156 students—464 of whom are female—are pursuing the five fields offered at this secondary school: music, theatre, dance, plastic arts and circus arts.
Ngorn Sarak, 16, a student from Takeo province, was selected for the Bassac opera course last year. Thanks to newly built dormitory, more than 170 students from the provinces can stay and study in the secondary art school. Electricity and running water are provided by the school, but the students are responsible for their own food.
“We are hoping to find more support in providing meals for students from lower-income families so they can concentrate on their studies,” Sieng Vieng says.
Sarak is not alone at this school. Douy Samrith, another Bassac opera student, left her home town in Takeo province with her brothers to come to the art school. “This is better compared to my classes in the provinces, because we get to practise regularly under the guidance of expert instructors,” says Samrith, who is in her second year of Bassac opera training.
So far, there has been no research revealing why students in Phnom Penh seem uninterested in Bassac opera and Yike theater. Sieng Vieng, however, speculates that it may be because students think they won’t be able to make a lot of money from them.
Unlike other Khmer dances, Yike and Bassac are performed in a group and for the public only. Both incorporate singing and physical exercise.
“Students who graduate from this school can go one step further at the Royal University of Fine Art downtown. They also have the option of attending pedagogy school or working in the cultural department,” Sieng Vieng says.
“Because this school provides instruction in both the arts and general knowledge, some students may go on to pursue majors unrelated to art.”
Ngorn Sarak says: “If possible, I want to continue my studies at university so I can someday become a teacher of art and perform opera.”
Chann Sreynoun is another student who will finish her secondary schooling next year and return to her home town.
“I will be a dancer in Kampong Speu with my elder sisters so that I can share what I have learned here,” she says.
To sum up, an undying interest in the arts, combined with open space at art schools, the influence of relatives who are artists have pushed students from the provinces rather than from Phnom Penh to pursue education in the arts. I hope that there will be more students both from the provinces and the city who will study art in order to develop and preserve Khmer culture.