A delaide will play host to the National Dance Company of Cambodia which is
taking Khmer classical dance to the annual arts festival.
Prior to the
troupe's departure, Phnom Penh residents can sample a taste of the show at the
Bassac Theater when the 36-member troupe performs for one night on Feb. 8 at
Australian ethnomusicologist Bill Lobban has been working with
the company and has traveled with them to Britain and Hong Kong. He has spent
the last six years studying Khmer music and dance, writing, recording and
photographing for posterity.
Lobban said it is hard to define just how
many of the intricate dance movements exist. To capture them he has, so far,
taken 8,000 photographs. The movements are based on the four main roles of
classical dance - the Prince, the Princess, the Giant and the Monkey.
The dance gestures are identical to those depicted on the murals at
Angkor Wat. Only the costumes have changed, influenced in the 19th century by
dancers from the Thai court.
The apsaras at Angkor wore rather less than
today's dancers, who are stitched into their tight-fitting clothes before each
Inevitably the garments, glittering with spangles, are
unwashable and grow ever more odoriferous with the dancers' exertions. They are
hand-made, cut out of patterns by groups of seamstresses who stitch in hundreds
of special sequins which Lobban brings back from Australia.
"Last time I
came through customs I was afraid they'd search my luggage and ask why I was
carrying nine kilos of sequins," he remembered with amusement.
costumes, like the gestures, have remained traditional and conservative. Whereas
Thailand has continued to experiment in dance, Cambodia has retained an older
form of court tradition.
"The reason is that each dance is an act of
worship to the gurus of the dance," explained Lobban. "Before each performance,
the dancers enact a 'homrong', a little ceremony in which they seek permission
to dance, asking the gurus, who have near deity status, to make this the best
There are always votive offerings, candles and
incense close to the performance area. This has caused problems overseas with
people unfamiliar with Cambodian tradition.
A memorable occasion was the
troupe's tour of Britain in 1989. Lobban remembered irate theater directors
waving fire regulations at them in provincial theaters in Oxford and Glasgow, as
candles were lit near stages with heavy curtains. "I had to tell them we'd blow
them out the minute the ceremony was over," he recalled.
is now destined for a wider public here and abroad and is no longer such an
elite, courtly tradition. "It is now part of the Khmer identity," said Lobban.
Training for the company takes place at the School of Fine Arts which
recruits about 70 dance students a year from all over the country. They are
carefully selected at a very young age.
"It's like a cattle market,"
said Lobban. "Their legs, hands and even their teeth are examined to make sure
they will be exactly right."
The students undergo 12 years of rigorous
training, six for technique, six for 'spirituality', during which time some will
drop out and others who prove unsuitable are, remarked Lobban candidly, "just
Those deemed suitable for any of the four principal roles,
three of which are played exclusively by women, will start training for them
"We have a little ten-year-old boy learning the principal
male role, Hanuman the monkey, in the Reamker," said Lobban. "When he dances the
sequence with the mermaid, who is just as young, they have all the
coquettishness and teasing of the flirtatious part exactly right."
Funded by the Ministry of Culture, students practice six days a week for
two-and-half-hours each morning. Financial support is, however, a constant
problem and Lobban does considerable fund-raising. Organizations such as the
Danielle Mitterand Foundation have been supportive and pay scholarships.
It is only now that a new set of students are graduating from the
school's 12-year course and they are greatly needed to replace the generation of
dancers lost during the Pol Pot regime.
But it is not an easy task to
replace lost talent and the knowledge of surviving, older dancers is much sought
after. Some of them are among the performers going to Adelaide. "Theoretically
they are too old, but there are so few young dancers today," said Lobban.
Sok Chea is 40, and featured in the Australian film The Tenth Dancer.
She still takes lessons every day from her teacher and her ten-year-old daughter
is following in her footsteps. "I am looking forward to dancing in Australia,"
she said excitedly.
The most celebrated teacher is Madame Chea Samy, the
sister-in-law of Pol Pot, now in her early seventies. Another survivor is Madame
Em Theay, in her mid-sixties, who also teaches and will accompany the group's
tour in Australia.
She cannot read or write but has an astonishing memory
for songs and dance movements. The daughter of a cook in the Royal Palace, Em
Theay was brought up there and at four was learning gestures from the court
"She never forgot anything," said Lobban. He gave her a tape
recorder so that whenever she remembered another song she could record it
wherever she was. There are now 1,700 songs registered.
indefatigable Em Theay has, in between devoting her life to dance, given birth
19 times and raised nine children. Five of them survived the KR and are now all
involved in music and dance.
She has been preparing the troupe for the
Adelaide Arts Festival. "I will be singing," she said. "And dressing the
dancers. There is a lot of work before we leave."
Nine musicians of the
classical orchestra, pinpeat, will accompany the 21 dancers, together with
singers, dressers and a manager. Lobban highly praised the whole company's
"They are such troopers. They can perform anywhere,
from a Covent Garden stage to a tabletop," he said. "In Manchester, our bus
broke down en route to a performance, which was to begin in 20 minutes. They
just put their make-up on in the bus and when we arrived were three-quarters
dressed and went straight on-stage only three minutes late."
They will be
in Adelaide for three weeks. This year's festival has an Asia-Pacific bias and a
special bamboo structure has been built for continuous performances of shadow
play and the Rama-yana classical dance.
The Australian Department of
Foreign Affairs and Trade has given $36,000 to the troupe whose presence will
increase international awareness of Cam-bodia's dance and musical heritage.