​Dance troupe to Aussie-land | Phnom Penh Post

Dance troupe to Aussie-land


Publication date
28 January 1994 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Denise Heywood

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A striking work titled 'Swirling Woman' is by artist Hay Chhoen.

A delaide will play host to the National Dance Company of Cambodia which is

taking Khmer classical dance to the annual arts festival.

Prior to the

troupe's departure, Phnom Penh residents can sample a taste of the show at the

Bassac Theater when the 36-member troupe performs for one night on Feb. 8 at

6.30 pm.

Australian ethnomusicologist Bill Lobban has been working with

the company and has traveled with them to Britain and Hong Kong. He has spent

the last six years studying Khmer music and dance, writing, recording and

photographing for posterity.

Lobban said it is hard to define just how

many of the intricate dance movements exist. To capture them he has, so far,

taken 8,000 photographs. The movements are based on the four main roles of

classical dance - the Prince, the Princess, the Giant and the Monkey.

The dance gestures are identical to those depicted on the murals at

Angkor Wat. Only the costumes have changed, influenced in the 19th century by

dancers from the Thai court.

The apsaras at Angkor wore rather less than

today's dancers, who are stitched into their tight-fitting clothes before each


Inevitably the garments, glittering with spangles, are

unwashable and grow ever more odoriferous with the dancers' exertions. They are

hand-made, cut out of patterns by groups of seamstresses who stitch in hundreds

of special sequins which Lobban brings back from Australia.

"Last time I

came through customs I was afraid they'd search my luggage and ask why I was

carrying nine kilos of sequins," he remembered with amusement.


costumes, like the gestures, have remained traditional and conservative. Whereas

Thailand has continued to experiment in dance, Cambodia has retained an older

form of court tradition.

"The reason is that each dance is an act of

worship to the gurus of the dance," explained Lobban. "Before each performance,

the dancers enact a 'homrong', a little ceremony in which they seek permission

to dance, asking the gurus, who have near deity status, to make this the best

performance possible."

There are always votive offerings, candles and

incense close to the performance area. This has caused problems overseas with

people unfamiliar with Cambodian tradition.

A memorable occasion was the

troupe's tour of Britain in 1989. Lobban remembered irate theater directors

waving fire regulations at them in provincial theaters in Oxford and Glasgow, as

candles were lit near stages with heavy curtains. "I had to tell them we'd blow

them out the minute the ceremony was over," he recalled.

Classical dance

is now destined for a wider public here and abroad and is no longer such an

elite, courtly tradition. "It is now part of the Khmer identity," said Lobban.

Training for the company takes place at the School of Fine Arts which

recruits about 70 dance students a year from all over the country. They are

carefully selected at a very young age.

"It's like a cattle market,"

said Lobban. "Their legs, hands and even their teeth are examined to make sure

they will be exactly right."

The students undergo 12 years of rigorous

training, six for technique, six for 'spirituality', during which time some will

drop out and others who prove unsuitable are, remarked Lobban candidly, "just

pushed out."

Those deemed suitable for any of the four principal roles,

three of which are played exclusively by women, will start training for them


"We have a little ten-year-old boy learning the principal

male role, Hanuman the monkey, in the Reamker," said Lobban. "When he dances the

sequence with the mermaid, who is just as young, they have all the

coquettishness and teasing of the flirtatious part exactly right."

Funded by the Ministry of Culture, students practice six days a week for

two-and-half-hours each morning. Financial support is, however, a constant

problem and Lobban does considerable fund-raising. Organizations such as the

Danielle Mitterand Foundation have been supportive and pay scholarships.

It is only now that a new set of students are graduating from the

school's 12-year course and they are greatly needed to replace the generation of

dancers lost during the Pol Pot regime.

But it is not an easy task to

replace lost talent and the knowledge of surviving, older dancers is much sought

after. Some of them are among the performers going to Adelaide. "Theoretically

they are too old, but there are so few young dancers today," said Lobban.

Sok Chea is 40, and featured in the Australian film The Tenth Dancer.

She still takes lessons every day from her teacher and her ten-year-old daughter

is following in her footsteps. "I am looking forward to dancing in Australia,"

she said excitedly.

The most celebrated teacher is Madame Chea Samy, the

sister-in-law of Pol Pot, now in her early seventies. Another survivor is Madame

Em Theay, in her mid-sixties, who also teaches and will accompany the group's

tour in Australia.

She cannot read or write but has an astonishing memory

for songs and dance movements. The daughter of a cook in the Royal Palace, Em

Theay was brought up there and at four was learning gestures from the court


"She never forgot anything," said Lobban. He gave her a tape

recorder so that whenever she remembered another song she could record it

wherever she was. There are now 1,700 songs registered.


indefatigable Em Theay has, in between devoting her life to dance, given birth

19 times and raised nine children. Five of them survived the KR and are now all

involved in music and dance.

She has been preparing the troupe for the

Adelaide Arts Festival. "I will be singing," she said. "And dressing the

dancers. There is a lot of work before we leave."

Nine musicians of the

classical orchestra, pinpeat, will accompany the 21 dancers, together with

singers, dressers and a manager. Lobban highly praised the whole company's


"They are such troopers. They can perform anywhere,

from a Covent Garden stage to a tabletop," he said. "In Manchester, our bus

broke down en route to a performance, which was to begin in 20 minutes. They

just put their make-up on in the bus and when we arrived were three-quarters

dressed and went straight on-stage only three minutes late."

They will be

in Adelaide for three weeks. This year's festival has an Asia-Pacific bias and a

special bamboo structure has been built for continuous performances of shadow

play and the Rama-yana classical dance.

The Australian Department of

Foreign Affairs and Trade has given $36,000 to the troupe whose presence will

increase international awareness of Cam-bodia's dance and musical heritage.

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