SANTHA Leang limbers up with his fellow dancers backstage, amid the tang of incense
burning on a table next to their masks, colored blue, black, white and gold. Without
a murmur, the dancers finish up their routines and pray to Buddha.
Fruits and flowers have already been given as offerings. The musicians gather on-stage
with their gongs, sampho and sralays. Leang's experiment in mixing together classical
Cambodian dance with contemporary Western influences is just minutes away, in front
of a packed Chatomuk theater.
He shows no signs of nerves. Just concentration.
Leang, a French choregrapher born in Cambodia in 1952, wrote the Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow)
concert's libretto based on a Khmer story of monkeys battling giants in Cambodia
- the basis of the traditional masked dance called lokhon khol.
Leang has added a twist: the black monkey is sent to an unknown universe; in modern
parlance, lost in a city he does not know.
Leang returned home for the first time in 1993 and began learning the gestures and
the traditional Cambodian dances. In 1995, he created a solo performance called "White
Monkey". He soon met Proueng Chhieng, dean of the choregraphic arts at the Royal
Faculty of Fine Arts
"I saw what Leang did before. I saw his choregraphy of 'White Monkey' and I
encouraged him to come back and to do the same thing with our dancers," explained
Leang - who studies Khmer at a French university - came back in mid-April under a
grant from Villa Medicis in Rome. This organization helps young artists, giving annual
grants for a selected few to study their art. The concert was funded by the French
Leang first had to learn the gestures and movements of traditional dance at the Royal
Fine Arts college in Phnom Penh.
"I was like a little child and had to learn the gestures from the mistress,"
he said. "They looked upon me as a hard worker, but still I made mistakes."
Leang and the college dancers started working on his creation in August.
"I had to involve the dance teachers greatly. They are the key to transmit knowledge
to the dancers. They decide whether their pupils have reached the right level, and
they have the right to interpret the rules," he said.
Traditional Cambodian dance uses fixed gestures and rules. One of the dancers' duties
is to preserve this. Some were concerned that mixing Khmer and Western styles would
damage this tradition.
"Dance is a corporal expression. Modern or traditional, it has the same base.
But modern dance is less strict than our classical dance that has to respect rules.
So we tried different combinations.
"With lokhon khol it is much easier as the rules are not so numerous than in
classical," said Chhieng, who advised on the choregraphy all the way along.
"Each side has to find a same level. It is like sea water and fresh water mixing
together. At some stage you are not able to taste which is which," he said.
Little by little the choreography was built up.
"I explained to the masters and the musicians which part I wanted to include
in the choreography," Leang said.
"I picked up some gestures and attitudes from three different kinds of dance.
This is like a patchwork. Sometimes the masters or the director of the school said
'No, it doesn't work', so I changed and used others."
In the middle of the dance the black monkey becomes lost in a world unknown to him.
Modern dance replaces the traditional. In a big city, in which he has no reference
point and has no idea how to cope, the monkey has to survive. He tries, and is eventually
sent back home and regains his symbol - a knife. The traditional dance resumes as
the monkey relearns his roots.
"This idea comes from a friend who compared his life in Cambodia at war as being
like a well from which he could not see the light. When he escaped overseas he could
see the horizon again," Leang said.
Though denying it was autobiographical, Leang said: "I tried to show in the
dance what my first impression was of seeing snow fall when I arrived in Paris."
One of the teachers who taught the part of the little monkey thinks it is quite difficult
to mix both styles.
"This type of dance is quite new for us. Sometimes it is difficult to make the
correct gesture," he said. "But it is fantastic because after we worked
together with Leang I understand this abstract dance much better."
Like the dancers, the French composer, Laurent Ide, also had to find harmony between
two types of music.
"I started by learning what their music is, and how to play it. I explained
to the musicians what my music was like and we started to understand each other.
The best time was when they told me what I had to play!"