The Winter Garden Atrium, a cavernous space perched on the Hudson river’s edge in Lower Manhattan’s World Financial Center, was an impressive if unlikely stage for a cast of Cambodian puppeteers, most of whom had never before left Southeast Asian terrain.
But under the theatre’s cascading glass ceiling last week, as part of the New York Season of Cambodia festival (SOC), 15 shadow puppeteers paid homage to the Sbeik Thom – an ancient and sacred royal performance, with master puppeteers manoeuvring grand leather puppets flanked by dancers and musicians – in an interpretation of “Sor Neakabas” (The Magical Arrowhead Dragon), a tale from the Reamker, Cambodia’s version of the Ramayana.
Running from last Thursday to Sunday, it was one of a clutch of free SOC events and received rapturous applause, the festival’s executive director, Phloeun Prim, said over the phone on Tuesday.
The Winter Garden’s soaring, 10-storey glass atrium was once connected to the World Trade Center, left devastated after September 11. It was rebuilt the following year and last week, its backdrop – an inky sky and the shimmering New York City skyline – illuminated the six-foot-tall, ornate puppets.
The scene was a far cry from the dulcet hum of Wat Bo pagoda in Siem Reap – the temple the troupe call home and where traditional puppeteers have honed their skills under the watchful eye of Pin Sem, the monk largely responsible for reviving the craft in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge.
For Prim, the puppeteers’ first show was one of the most special moments in the two-month festival, which has featured more than 125 Cambodian artists at over 30 venues peppered across New York – revered institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Joyce Theatre, Parsons The New School for Design, the Lincoln Center, the Asia Society, the Guggenheim.
The festival has made headlines in the American media – praised in The Wall Street Journal – while The Economist suggested some of the art alluded to “[the American] government’s checkered role in Cambodia’s history.”
A group of masked monkey performers scampering about the stage in Khmeropédies III: Source/Primate – Amrita’s interpretation of traditional Lakhaon Kaol – were hailed in the New York Times as “spellbinding”. The liquid-limbed dancers of Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro’s Khmer Arts ensemble were featured in a quarter-page cover photo in the same paper’s arts section and Cheam-Shapiro was praised for her “forward-looking perspective” in the Star Tribune.
The intricate, rattan and bamboo grids, severed Buddhas and colossal, undulating morning glory sculptures made by Sopheap Pich, perhaps the country’s most successful diaspora artist, have received widespread critical acclaim in solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (he is the first Cambodian artist to show there) and Tyler Rollins Fine Art gallery. At the Met, some of the artists’ pieces suspend from the roof, encircled by Ankorian statues and reliefs. Prim mused that the ancient pieces “seemed to be in contemplation of . . . the delicate rattan and bamboo. I felt like I was bearing witness to a powerful dialogue between these different worlds.”
The work of the shadow puppeteers, Prim says, embodies the spirit of the festival: displaying the best of Cambodian art but also encouraging new talent.
“It’s not just about taking the best artists but also fostering up-and-coming artists . . . The boys of the Wat Bo pagoda, they perhaps didn’t intend to become artists, they learnt this through going to live at a monastery.”
The Sbek Thom, a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, was almost wiped out during the civil war, but the New York performance had an added layer of symbolic significance: some of the puppets have been remade and remodelled on scattered remains of props that were desperately buried by artists during Pol Pot’s brutal rule.
Pim Sem, the monk, had taught the craft for two decades, and was not initially receptive to collaboration – “he was so passionate about the original form’s pure preservation” – but was eventually persuaded.
“We spent three hours talking to Sem and eventually gained his trust, and we brought in artistic advisers from the Royal Ballet to provide intensive dance instruction, musical experts. We sent a lighting designer from New York to Siem Reap.
“The results were miraculous – the team in New York couldn’t believe the stage presence, the gestures, cadence of the music, the complete refinement on that first night.”
He says the group had been inspired by a Rigoletto performance they watched at the Metropolitan Opera House, and a Broadway Spiderman show where the Cambodian flag was held up as the curtains closed. “We brought Sem, the monk, to New York . . . He said he could not take his eyes off the stage, was blown away by the technique and the fact a thousand-year-old form was appealing to the people of New York.”
The festival has reached thousands of people, according to its marketing and communications director, Vanna Sann, who said almost all shows so far had sold out or were near capacity.
“The Royal Ballet performances will be seen by 6,000 people over three nights. The shadow puppets performances reached over 600 a night for four nights . . . We estimate between 15,000 and 20,000 will have attended [between all SOC shows].”
City of Ghosts actor Matt Dillon, The Killing Fields’ Sam Waterston (who played Sydney Schanberg) and 60 Minutes anchor Bob Simon had attended events, he added.
A large segment of the audience were Cambodian-Americans, many of whom had travelled from their Long Beach and Massachusetts homes. It heralded an important moment for those who had never visited Cambodia. “It was a chance to connect with developments in Cambodia today,” Vanna said.
The team engaged a “community council” of young diaspora volunteers who were responsible for helping behind the scenes with tasks including translation, artist support and marketing to local communities.
“The 1.5 generation they’re called . . . a lot were born in refugee camps, who have never really encountered a strong connection to [Cambodian] culture . . . a lot of them are determined now to go back [to Cambodia].
That’s important and will shape Cambodian art and culture . . . build a bridge.”
But what does the festival mean for artists in Cambodia, and for audiences here?
“One person said to me [in New York], ‘The festival can’t do anything but help . . . Rising tides lifts all boats,’ and I hope that is true. I hope funders, presenters, audience members, volunteers all have more interest and that somehow that leads to something big here,” says John Shapiro, Sophiline’s husband and Khmer Arts executive director.
“One effect is that our issues, today’s issues in Cambodia – human rights abuses, illegal logging, garment factories, racism, land disputes, evictions – are being heard,” adds Neang Kavich, whose documentary, Where I Go, explores the racist undercurrents swelling through Cambodian society and was screened at the Lincoln Center alongside the films of Rithy Pann, Davy Chou and Kalyanee Mam. Mam’s A River Changes Course won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
“It’s important for artists to see other cultures, not be locked inside Cambodia without exposure . . . to understand the world, other social issues . . . It’s really important to create engaged, contemporary art.” Prim says he hopes SOC will spawn other Cambodian art festivals around the world, and that Cambodian Living Arts, the lead sponsor of SOC, had received numerous expressions of interest from prospective partners in Los Angeles, France, other parts of Europe and Sydney.
“It was a $2.6 million festival, over three years . . . but with donor and partner support more like $5 million . . . It’s huge, so I think if we do it again, the structure may change, maybe joining other festivals instead, perhaps more collaborative.”
Celebrated Cambodian artist Leang Seckon, who once worked in a ramshackle studio on the shores of Boeung Kak lake, was adamant SOC would “move the arts in Cambodia forward.”
Seckon’s stirring installation piece, Parachute Skirt with Flowers, was sent directly from the Shanghai Biennale to the Bronx Museum of Arts for his SOC residency.
Made of military debris collected over the last 30 years – including a US Airforce parachute that landed in his home village in Prey Veng – Seckon worked on the installation with Cambodian female refugees, sewing and weaving flowers into the work, shifting its meaning into something more serene.
“Leang Seckon told me, for Cambodia, [SOC] is the second major exposure of arts and culture we’ve ever had internationally . . . after [King] Sisowath took the Royal Ballet to France in 1904,” Prim says.
“Now over 100 years after . . . usually it is Western organisations that want to present countries, but this has been produced by CLA, a Cambodian group, and most importantly the story we have presented came from right now, in Cambodia.”