At rehearsal last week for Amrita Performing Arts’ next contemporary dance platform, choreographer Chan Chankethya stood in the centre of the floor and watched six dancers bounce from wall to wall.
They didn’t float or spin; they sprinted, like a sports team running drills after practice. The energy in the small room became frenetic. Some drifted behind. They were refugees – characters in a pioneering 40-minute piece – desperate to escape.
The platform – Amrita’s sixth – could be its most ambitious yet. It features two works, one by Kethya (Departures) and another by young artist Chy Ratana. Both have only previously choreographed work in other countries. Kethya’s piece involves more dancers onstage than any before, and she pressed each of them to contribute to its theme by collecting their families’ wartime stories.
“I’m interested in using art as a way to heal trauma,” she explained between scenes. “But I also wanted to connect it to the larger problem, what’s happening in Syria and in Europe [today]. It’s all connected.”
Chankethya has served as Amrita’s artistic director for two years, but has yet to put one of her own pieces on its stage. For this one, she was inspired by her own family’s experiences – her parents and siblings fled Cambodia for Vietnam before she was born – and wanted to probe it through dance. Kethya translates their anxiety to individualised movement: in the back-and-forth rush of the first scene, and later, as the dancers shed layers of clothing, reducing the things they carry. There are few classical gestures.
Amrita envisions itself at the centre of a transition to Cambodian contemporary dance, but it’s not without traditional roots. At 32, Kethya fits into this mould. She began studying the classical form at the age of 5, and later performed with the Royal Ballet; she now teaches at the Secondary School of Fine Arts.
But she was exposed to contemporary dance as a teen, when she took part in a modern re-imagining of the Ramayana on a tour of Southeast Asia. It shifted her focus: “I wanted to fly, and I wanted to crawl,” she said. “I wanted to do things that just weren’t classical form anymore.”
Kethya studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, (twice) and continues to collaborate with world-class choreographers. She returned to Cambodia in 2014.
Chy Ratana, who’s created the platform’s other dance, also sought international exposure at a young age – he’s worked closely with Canada-based Peter Chin over the past few years. The 27-year-old gave his two dancers limited guidance: only to “react”’ as if they were confronting a new environment. “I didn’t tell them to take this shape, or that one,” he said at rehearsal. “I just tell them to explore by movement.”
The resulting piece (Somewhere) also turns on pivotal moments. It features his younger sister, Chy Lina, and a male dancer, Sor Sophal – at times alone, and at times opposed, as if they were mirror images.
Lina begins recognisably with classical kbach, but the dance subverts the traditional form. The dancers make strong eye contact with the audience and with each other. It relies heavily on improvisation. And it bends gender – the muscular Sophal is forced to mirror Lina’s feminine movements.
As with all of its works-in-progress, Amrita has brought in experts for review, like Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro, of Sophiline Arts Ensemble. She and Ratana’s mentor, Peter Chin, will watch and provide feedback this weekend.
The award-winning classical choreographer was particularly inspired by Chankethya’s ambitious piece – and quick to reach for historical comparison. “Departure exists in every story – just look at the Ramayana,” Sophiline said this week. “Sita [a primary character in the Ramayana] is stripped away from everything she knows.”
It’s noteworthy that Amrita looks to the community’s traditional pillars for advice, and Sophiline is characteristically supportive. “It [the form] doesn’t matter, as long as the story makes sense,” she added. “That’s the language [Kethya] chooses.”
As always, Amrita hopes it might court a foreign tour with its showcase – and with two dances up to international standards, it might not be off base. But for the weekend, the stage serves simply as a place for its dancers to move their own way.
On this note, Chankethya – and her colleagues – are looking forward. “Classical dance is in my blood,” she explained. “But it’s not just about the motifs anymore.”
Amrita’s sixth contemporary dance platform is on tonight and Saturday at the Department of Performing Arts, Street 173, at 7pm. Tickets are $5 and available at Java Café and Gallery, or by calling 077 986 015.