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Saving Cambodian theatre

In spite of the determined efforts of Lakhon Yike scholars who survived the Khmer Rouge to preserve Yike theatre, its influence on Khmer culture has been on a slow decline since the end of the brutal regime.

Events such as the inauguration of new temples or village ceremonies have traditionally involved Lakhon Yike, a theatrical style unique to Cambodia that includes dancing and singing. However, today modern music is being played to replace the role of Yike theatre.

Most teenagers prefer modern styles of music and other performing arts from America, Korea, China or Thailand. And with the rise in foreign influence has come a fall in the popularity of traditional Khmer performing arts.

“We cannot stop teenagers from seeing other countries’ cultures, but they should understand more about ours before knowing others,” said Uy Ladavan, a Yike teacher at Cambodia Living Arts, adding that children should not look down on their culture.

Song Seng, project coordinator at Cambodia Living Arts, said that the lack of media coverage of Khmer theatre is one of the factors making Yike’s popularity dwindle.

“We don’t know whether Cambodian people, especially teenagers, love it or not if they haven’t even seen it,” Song Seng said, adding that when people have parties and want to hire a Yike theatre troupe, they cannot find a company, making it easy to hire DJs playing foreign music.

Uy Ladavan said that he doesn’t blame teenagers for their affection for foreign culture, especially music, because the media does not disseminate information about Khmer theatre.

“Have you ever seen me perform Yike on television?” asked Uy Ladavan, deputy director of the Department of Arts in the Ministry of Culture.
Uy Ladavan said that it is hard to conserve Yike or make people love it because most television stations broadcast only foreign music.

TVK is the only station that makes a concerted effort to support traditional arts, with their programme titled “All Forms of Arts”. It includes Lakhon Bassac, Yike and other traditional Khmer arts. The programme, however, is broadcast only on Saturday night.

Realising that Lakhon, Yike, and other parts of Cambodia’s artistic identity are being endangered, Cambodia Living Arts has taught Yike classes to about 20 students since 2004.

Song Seng says that the class is free and provides each student with US$8 per month to encourage them to learn.

“I want to make a career in art, especially Yike, and bring what I am learning right now to teach the younger generation,” said Poung Sreyphors. “Even though Yike is under the risk of fading away, I believe that it will live on if there are more students learning it.”

With love and passion for Yike, Than Borey Sambath, a student from the School of Fine Arts, decided to study Yike every week night from 7:30pm to 9pm, despite his house being located in Kien Svay – about a 40 minutes drive from where he studies.

“We cannot work alone in preserving Yike. We need media to take part in sustaining Khmer theatre like Yike,” said Song Seng. “Otherwise, it will die out in the near future.”

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