Classical dance in Cambodia is traditionally the art form of royals and deities. Troupes still tour abroad showing off the country’s cultural heritage. But back home, the industry is under threat, writes Emily Wight.
It’s Monday night at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Inside the building, the sculptures and bronzes carry such historical significance even in their stillness. But outside, Khmer tradition is brought to life, as smiling girls in gold Apsara costume – complete with an intricate crown that can take up to two hours to fix onto the head – contort their wrists and ankles into mesmerising positions. They are part of Cambodia Living Arts’ Children of Bassac troupe, performing as part of the week-long production Plae Pakaa which began a new season on Monday.
These dancers are some of the lucky ones. In Angkorian times they would have been gracing the royal courts, but today, many struggle to live on low salaries, face increasingly disinterested audiences and a lack of funding, and little chance to study or teach the art form. The Royal Ballet, once the pride of Phnom Penh, rarely performs in the city, and arts professionals cite a lack of suitable venues as one of a long list of problems.
Believed to be the art form of deities and royals, classical dance has played a key part in the country’s history, spanning from the Mahabharata and Ramayana legends which feature in ancient temple motifs, to King Sisowath’s visit to France with the Royal Ballet in 1906 and Europe’s subsequent introduction to the art form, and the performances staged for tourists today. One of the most famous patrons of the art form was the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died last October. On the anniversary of his death this week, two members of the royal family called for an arts centre to be built in his name.
In 2003, UNESCO granted Intangible Cultural Heritage status to Cambodian classical dance, as part of a list of “intangible heritage elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance”. Ten years later, how has this status taken hold? Is classical dance flourishing, as tourists might expect from the pull-out photographs in their guidebooks? Yes, on the surface. In Siem Reap, after admiring at the Apsara figures engraved into the ancient temples of Angkor, tourists can expect an evening of dance entertainment complete with a helping of fish amok.
Behind the scenes, however, the arts industry is in crisis, according to leading figures. The reality for dancers is hard; many who work in Cambodia’s tourist hotspots are underpaid. Soth Rasmei, 18, is a graduate of the Siem Reap School of Arts. When he was 17 years old he began working for a dance company for tourists, where he stayed for 18 months. In order to take home his salary of just $35 per month, he was required to perform every night for seven days a week, 30 days a month. On top of his studies at high school every morning, and his job as a support teacher at the School of Arts in the evening, this was exhausting. He said: “I would like to get a higher salary for my performances. My family had to support me to live.”
Rasmei is now training at Tlai’Tno, a not-for-profit organisation in Siem Reap with the aim to improve the working conditions of dancers. A recent report published by the NGOs Labour Behind the Label and Community Legal Education Centre advises that buying enough quality food for proper nutrition amounts to $75 per month. But as well as creating undignified living conditions for dancers and deterring fresh talent by neglecting to invest in the next generation, this practice is damaging the industry.
Kang Rithisal is the executive director at Amrita Performing Arts, a dance company based in Phnom Penh, and feels strongly about securing a fair deal for dancers. He said: “When it comes to classical dance being a business, and people just wanting to make profit from it, then there’s no respect for the integrity of the arts.”
Amrita, Rithisal insisted, is different from these groups, in that it puts time and money back into the creative process, allowing its dancers to create their own work. Its problem is a lack of funding. While its not-for-profit status in the US attracts funds from donors there on a project-by-project basis, there is a lack of local support. Even the donations it does receive end up being spent mostly on expenses, said Rithisal.
One person who would recognise Amrita’s plight is Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, artistic director of Khmer Arts Academy and a leading figure in Cambodian classical dance. Like Amrita, the majority of Khmer Arts’ funding comes from foundations in the US, but it’s drying up.
Shapiro sees lack of arts funding as the biggest threat to classical dance. Khmer Arts receives no support from the government, and although its has applied for UNESCO funding under the designation of Intangible Cultural Heritage status for classical dance, the bureaucracy involved in the process is a deterrent. Because UNESCO is a multi-governmental organisation in which Cambodia is just one member, an application has to go through the member states before it can be granted funds. Before it even reaches UNESCO, the application will have to be signed off on by the Ministry of Culture expressing support. Applications are known to have sat on the Ministry’s desks for weeks before being seen to.
Because of a lack of funding, dancers at Khmer Arts can now only practice two days per week. They have to sustain other jobs to survive: working in hotels, or at the markets.
Even the Royal Ballet, presided over by Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, has funding problems. Prince Sisowath Tesso, Devi’s cousin, is the great-great-grandson of King Sisowath, who made his first state visit to France in 1906 accompanied by a troupe of royal dancers. Tesso blamed the problems in dance on the size of its operating cost, which increases constantly due to costumes and jewels becoming more and more expensive, a lack of interest from potential sponsors and an uninterested audience in Cambodia.
As a result, the Royal Ballet hasn’t performed in Cambodia since 2010. It is set to perform in Kyoto, Seoul and China in December and in 2014 it will embark on a European tour. Tesso said: “When the Royal Ballet performs abroad, we are performing to a public that is very enthusiastic and really appreciates our ancestral tradition.”
Tesso appealed to supporters of King Sihanouk to back the arts. He said: “King Father Sihanouk was always placing arts and culture at the centre of each town. I hope one day we could have a cultural centre in Phnom Penh that will honour his name in favour of Cambodian arts. I think that the King Father would a thousand times prefer a cultural centre in his name to protect artists than a monumental statue that doesn’t really look like him.”
Prince Sisowath Thomico, nephew and former aide to the late King Father, agreed with Tesso, saying: “King Sihanouk was a lover of arts. He was a composer, and he tried to promote classical dance in all his movies.” He added that Sihanouk always wanted the house in which he was born – now home to the North Korean Embassy – turned into an art museum.
When asked about the role of the statue, Ek Tha, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, declined to comment.
But even with admiration from the Royal Family, many young Cambodians are unaware of the cultural heritage of classical dance. Chap Chamroeun Tola, 27, is a teacher and dancer with the Royal Ballet. While dance is her passion, her friends know next to nothing about it – something which she puts down to a lack of exposure. She said: “I talk to my friends and they say they want to see a good Apsara dance, but they don’t know where they can see it.”
How can an appreciation of ancestral tradition become prevalent among Cambodian audiences? Rithisal believes that teaching classical dance in mainstream schools would build popularity among young people and thus more demand for local performances. He said: “Exposure at a young age for the children will build them as future audiences. At present, there is a lack of a truly appreciative audience.”
However, the day when classical dance is taught in mainstream schools seems far away, particularly when you consider the situation at the industry’s flagship educational institution, the Royal Secondary School of Fine Arts. The school used to be located near the Japanese Bridge in Phnom Penh, but in 2005, the building was taken over by a redeveloper, and it moved out to Beung Bayab in Sen Sok district. For teachers and students alike, getting there was difficult. Not only did it take more time and cost more money, but the poor condition of the road made it a near impossible task. Luckily, the road gradually improved, and after three years the King donated school buses – but cash for petrol was scarce, and in any case, by that time 30 per cent of the students had dropped out of the school.
Cheam Sothearos, 20, is a classical dance student at RUFA, where she began studying after graduating from the secondary school just over one year ago. She said: “Travelling so far away was difficult. My father drove me to school for three years, and after that the King bought school buses so I’d get up early in the morning and wait with other students at the Japanese Bridge for the bus to pick us up.”
Other students weren’t so lucky. Sothearos said: “We had a lot of students drop out because of the distance – when the school was near the Japanese Bridge there were 100 students and when it moved there were only 20 students left.”
Because classical dance isn’t taught in mainstream schools, studying at the Secondary School of Fine Arts is, other than training offered by not-for-profit organisations such as Cambodia Living Arts and Apsara Arts, or the private school Selapak, one of the only pathways that equips young dancers to make it professionally. With so many no longer able to attend the school, the pool of future artists has become massively reduced. Sothearos said: “Maybe in the future, there will be fewer and fewer dancers because of the distance. Some students can’t go at all, and others are not as bothered because it’s so far. And although the school has buses, sometimes there’s no money to pay for petrol, so students have to make their own way to school.”
There are initiatives helping students to study, such as Cambodia Living Arts’ scholarship programme, of which Sothearos is a beneficiary. The scholarship sees 25 arts students receive a stipend of $50 per month; the undergraduate programme at RUFA is free to graduates of the secondary school, but resources for the students’ final projects come out of their own pockets. Many students use the money to buy a laptop or books. Sothearos’ family has put it towards building another floor on their house, to protect it from flood damage.
But even after the challenge of getting to the school, students are faced with another problem. Because teachers also struggled to make it there, most of them reduced their hours so they didn’t have to go in every day.
Proueng Chhieng, the former vice rector and dean at the Faculty of Choreographic Arts at RUFA, sometimes teaches at the secondary school. He believes that teachers should be paid more than their current salary, which is less than $100 per month.
He said: “When the school moved, teachers could no longer go there every day because of their low salaries, and this has made the quality of dance training worsen in the past 10 years. Our government ought to raise our salaries. I worry about the training of our next generation.”
For those who might shrug and ask why we should care, Shapiro offered a touching analogy.
“Let’s say you spend a month creating a beautiful garden and then you walk away for a month. You come back and you probably spend similar time and energy and resources to make the garden beautiful again, let alone better – because it takes constant nurturing and caring in order for it to remain in the same good shape. Right now we need funding in order to continue growing, because otherwise we will end up walking away from the garden and then a few years later we will come back and have to create it all over again.”
The Ministry of Culture could not be reached for comment.