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Rehearsals for Amrita’s third dance platform take place in Phnom Penh earlier this week.
Rehearsals for Amrita’s third dance platform take place in Phnom Penh earlier this week. Eli Meixler

Leading the dance

Cambodian choreographers have traditionally turned their backs on the spotlight for the sake of modesty. This weekend, a show places their creativity centre stage

Amrita Performing Art’s contemporary dance platforms, the third of which will be held today, are events with an unusual focus for Cambodia: it is the choreographers, rather than the dancers, who are in the spotlight.

“The term ‘choreographer’ in Cambodia is really new,” said Chey Chankethya, creative director of Amrita Performing Arts, a few days before the show.

Contemporary dance in Cambodia is only a decade old, but choreographers have been instrumental in the staging of traditional dances for centuries. Modesty has, however, dictated that practitioners eschew the label, Kethya explained.

Rehearsals for Saturday’s performance.
Rehearsals for Saturday’s performance. Eli Meixler

“No one ever claims that they are choreographers because of the culture,” she said. “These forms [of traditional dance] have been created for the royal family, for princesses; they belong to their family. When you work for them it is patronage – so you never claim you are creating, you are just helping.”

Kethya was among the first generation of dancers to take part in training that elevated choreography to a profession in its own right, graduating from the Royal University of Fine Art’s choreography class in 2005, four years after the course was introduced.

Today, through Amrita, she is trying to empower more dancers to take an active role in creating new works, rather than performing in pieces set by other dance professionals.

For the dance platform, which is biannual, any Amrita dancer can pitch an idea for a piece they would like to make. The successful applicants get six weeks rehearsal time to devise the work, and are paid for doing it.

On stage today will be three pieces, each devised by a young dancer with only limited experience of choreographing movement.

Yon Davy’s Knot was inspired by the dancer’s own pregnancy, and uses close coupling between dancers to evoke the womb, birth and infancy. “My dancers sometimes think it’s really strange,” Chankethya said.

Davy is not alone in introducing her performers to themes they may not have previously encountered through dance.

Hou Cheychanrith took inspiration for his piece Transformation from Phnom Penh’s disregard for recycling, and both props and costumes are made of plastic – including a nightgown made by stitching together plastic bags.

Originally trained as a classical musician, Chanrith set his piece to a medley of unconventional sounds, including recordings of thunder and snow.

Amrita’s dance platform last year.
Amrita’s dance platform last year. ANDRES JIRAS

The longest dance comes from Nget Rady, who began his training in 1999 specialising in lakhoan koal masked dance. “My piece is about tension,” Rady said. “I focus on the physical and mental challenges of everyday life.”

As well as directing, Rady will also dance in the show, explaining that as a first-time choreographer he wants to understand the difficulties his dancers might face when interpreting his directions.

Despite Amrita’s championing of contemporary dance, there are still challenges inherent in staging this type of performance in Phnom Penh. Foremost among them, the pool of dancers trained in a modern style remains small and each choreographer has been assigned one dancer from outside Amrita with no previous knowledge of contemporary dance. All three agree that it’s easy to spot the dancers whose training has been exclusively in traditional dance.

One of Davy’s dancers for Knot has grown up dancing the role of the monkey, and finds it hard to shake the particular mannerisms of the part. “Whatever he does he’s really like a monkey,” Rady said, laughing. “His father was a monkey master too.”

But these stumbling blocks are taken in good spirit. As dancers, they are aware of how rigid training can make them – even within particular styles of contemporary dance.

Last week all three choreographers participated in workshops with the visiting American choreographer Mark Morris. Davy admitted to feeling intimidated at first by the unusual style of the foreign dancers. “But what I found is that our basic [style of dance] is also hard for them,” she said. “We’re not lower than them, we’re equal, it’s just that there are some things they find easy and there are some things we find easy.”

All three choreographers agreed that the most important thing for their dancers to learn is how to breathe correctly.

“You need to move from the inside,” Chanrith said, trying to pinpoint what exactly sets contemporary dance apart. “It’s not so easy to explain as ‘now put your hand in this position’.”

Contemporary Dance Platform takes place today at 7pm in the Department of Performing Arts behind Spark Club on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. Tickets cost $2.50 and can be purchased from Java Cafe or on the door.

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