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Spectacle of Arts

Master musicians Kong Nai, left, and Suon Pe, at Cambodia's first arts retreat, Mohaosrop Selepak Khmer Amatak, in Battambang.

Twelve-year old Joy Rithy trotted barefoot for more than two kilometers from his

Andong Jeng village to hear what the commotion was at the Phare Ponleu Selapak campus

in Battambang. When he arrived at the sprawling arts complex, Rithy was awed by the

spectacle before him.

"There is so much energy and excitement here," he said. "I did not

expect to see so many students and so much Khmer art all in one place."

Battambang was recently the site of a week-long explosion of art demonstrations,

musical performances, workshops, games, and dance.

The first arts retreat, Mohaosrop Selepak Khmer Amatak 2006, featured more than 310

master artists, students, visiting artists and observers - brought together by an

alliance of arts organizations such as Cambodian Living Arts, Phare Ponleu Selapak,

Epic Arts, Friends Economic Development Association, (FEDA) and US-based Watkinson

School.

According to Phany Tum, 34, Country Manager of Cambodian Living Arts, the focus of

Mohaosrop was "learning and sharing."

"At the opening day procession on August 24, students were on the edge of their

seats as the thunder roared in the background," said Tum, an expatriate Khmer

from Providence, Rhode Island. "Already, I could anticipate what awaited the

students and masters. The event will be special."

There were four workshop sessions in 12 different art forms. The classes included

traditional Khmer and Western arts, and ranged through wedding music, ritualistic

funeral chanting known as smot, painting, street circus, Bassac opera, chapey dong

veng or long-necked guitar, and even salsa dancing.

"These workshops were inspirational to participate in and observe," said

Dickon Verey, 31, who represented FEDA, a youth-centered organization that provides

educational opportunities to rural residents.

"If you go on any bus trip in Cambodia, every kid sings. There is music in every

child. And during the music workshop, young students were taking notes and asking

question after question of the masters."

Sor Touch, 23, a Phare student in painting, echoes similar sentiments. "I attended

the Bassac Theater workshop with very little knowledge of this traditional art. I

came out of Master Norng Chock's workshop understanding the relationship between

the placement of music and dance movements."

Master musicians Kong Nai, left, and Suon Pe, at Cambodia's first arts retreat, Mohaosrop Selepak Khmer Amatak, in Battambang.

According to the Mohaosrop program booklet, Bassac Theater is a traditional Khmer

form of theater that uses song and is among the most popular of all Cambodian theater

forms. It is strongly influenced by Hy (Chinese Opera) and Kai Loeung (Vietnamese

theater), which is evident in its scenery, costumes and makeup and also in the extremely

physical and almost acrobatic acting techniques.

Besides the educational component of Mohaosrop, the seven-day program offered a rare

opportunity for rural villagers to enjoy performances of many Khmer art forms. One

crowd favorite was the Phare street circus and sbaek thom, a form of shadow puppetry

that means, "large skin."

Ben Sokchea, 13, of Phnom Penh, was dazzled by Wat Bo's shadow theater troupe.

"My eyes lit up from the burning fire behind the cloth stage," Sokchea

said. "I was mesmerized by the detailed puppet pieces, rhythmic body movements

and story of warfare."

The collective energy of the participants did not dissipate, and often lasted until

the early hours. At the closing finale, students, masters and international guests

performed non-stop.

According to event organizers, the objective of Mohaosrop 2006 was to create lasting

memories for the participants, revive traditional Cambodian art forms and inspire

contemporary artistic expression.

"If the arts die, so will the nation; today, it gives me strong hope that our

beloved Cambodia has been reborn," said Kum Sinath, 63, of Siem Reap.

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