We've all seen the traditional Apsara dance shows being advertised around town, often coupled with a hotel buffet dinner. It is a tried – and some might say tired – and tested tourist favourite but on Saturday, Hotel 1961 brings something different: a contemporary dance performance combining Apsara moves with jazz, soul and pop music.
The show is the brainchild of Australian Nick Coffill, producer of brand-new collective, the Bambu Stretch Project, “an intense, fourteen-week training program that uses the classical tradition of Cambodia as a framework for contemporary dance.”
The dance company so far consists of just three female performers who have been rehearsing for a month, and the fruits of their labours will be shown tomorrow, December 1, at 6.30pm.
The young dancers are all classically trained graduates from the School of Arts in Siem Reap.
Former theatre designer Coffill got the idea after watching countless hotel shows and feeling “they could be much better,” with higher production values.
Classical dance teacher Ms Yon Chanta (L) with the three new dancers Son Srey Nith, Kong Seng Va and Khun Srey Noch. Photograph Nick Coffill
He says, “We see in Siem Reap a great opportunity to change the face of the tourist and hotel shows, where we see kids having to repeat ad nauseum the coconut dance and the Apsara dance. What’s happening is Khmer culture is being flattened out. We see it as a chance to think about the contemporary world, and take that great classical tradition of Cambodian dance and ratchet it up to the 21st century.”
Dutch choreographer and artistic director Bob Ruijzendaal has been working with the trio on various routines set to modern music.
“Bob is using a whole kaleidoscope of different music,” Coffill says, “From the great music of Sinn Sisamouth, the music of the 1960s of Cambodia, which is still played on the radio. We’re looking at jazz music, world music, pop, anything that’s got a light fresh attitude that can engage with the dancers.”
The girls have also been working with top classical dancers from Phnom Penh with international experience who, Coffill says, know how to engage with the audience “using the eye” – something that’s not typically seen in traditional Khmer dance.
“Traditional court dancing in Cambodia is dancing for the gods. So to engage with an audience is unnecessary. The idea of winking or pouting to the audience is a complete anathema.”
In Coffill’s new, modern vision of Apsara the girls won’t be dressed in traditional costume, just simple cotton trousers and t-shirts – the costume of contemporary dance.
The 35 minute performance will include stories about working women in Cambodia – from the night market stall holder to the street sweeper.
Long-term, Coffill plans to expand the dance troupe, and to establish the Bambu Theatre Company. His aim is to be Siem Reap’s “first contemporary, full-time dance company” by summer 2013, giving weekly performances of “damn good theatre” at various venues for locals and tourists alike.