To the beat of tribal music, the couples draw each other closer. One of the female dancers starts to sing a slow song, and her partner replies with his own guttural tune. Suddenly it ends, and the small room is left entranced for a moment before the audience breaks into applause.
These mesmerising, animalistic dances were the result of a two-day workshop between the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) and Amrita Performing Arts on October 15 and 16. Visiting Cambodia on a cultural exchange program run by USA Motion and Brooklyn Academy of Music, MMDG will collaborate with the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), Amrita Performing Arts, Tiny Toones and Epic Arts, among others, during their 10 day tour.
Established by Mark Morris in 1980, MMDG is one of the world’s leading dance groups, famed for the bold and provocative style of its founder and choreographer. Some of the pieces that Morris is well known for include a dance interpretation of Henry Purcell’s famed opera Dido and Aeneas, and Petrichor – a rare all female production.
The program, assisted by the US embassy, aims to facilitate a cultural exchange of ideas, techniques and practices. “We wanted to get as far from New York as possible,” Mark Morris said at a press conference on October 14.
Morris described himself as an admirer of Cambodian culture: “Dance has always been a big part of the culture here and I adore that,” he said. “My own choreography is based on very old classical forms and also new ideas. That’s something that’s happening here, too.”
In their two-day workshop with Amrita Performing Arts, MMDG learnt more than just new dance moves. “Even from yesterday to today, I feel we’re more comfortable, we’re communicating better,” said Brian Lawson a dancer from MMDG.
“You really get to know people through their culture, through their dance,” he said, adding that he was amazed by the intricate ways that Cambodian artists mould their hands in the dances.
A half-day workshop with hip-hop group Tiny Toones on October 16 resulted in an exchange of contemporary dance and hip-hop moves. “The big achievement was seeing new and different types of dance than what they are used to seeing day to day,” said Chhoeun Shhort Reuth, general manager of Tiny Toones, hinting that the exchange would be sure to influence their upcoming dances.
The highlight of MMDG’s visit will come on Wednesday night, when they perform a number of works at the Khmer Arts Theatre in Takhmao. One of the pieces they will perform is their highly acclaimed Words, which premiered earlier this month in New York. Based on Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, the performance will have live accompaniment from a violin and piano.
Music is famously an integral piece of Mark Morris’s work, and over the years the choreographer has occasionally taken on the role of conductor for the musicians at performances. While in Phnom Penh, he and MMDG music director Colin Fowler have been working with musicians from the Royal University of Fine Arts to recreate the polka using the piano and traditional Cambodian instruments. The results of that collaboration are also to be performed at the traditional Khmer Arts Theatre in Takhmao.
This is the first time that the dance group has split into two tours: East and West. The eastern tour, which starts in Cambodia, will then travel to East Timor and Taiwan, while the other half of MMDG’s dancers tour in Europe and America. The two groups will meet again in China in November.
Tickets for Wednesday’s show are free but need to be collected from Amrita Performance Arts (128-G9 Sothearos Boulevard) beforehand. The show is on at 6.30pm at Khmer Arts Theatre, Takhmao.