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Swan songs for eviction-threatened dance studio

Swan songs for eviction-threatened dance studio

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Hard times coming for the Apsara Arts Association. The back hoe is getting closer and closer to the dance floor and threatening to destroy the sala.

Nestled between a dubious looking massage parlor and a row of tin shacks that line

a dusty stretch of Street 598 in Phnom Penh's Toul Kork district, is the Apsara Arts

Association (AAA)- a local NGO dedicated to teaching disadvantaged Cambodian children

about their traditional culture.

Every day, more than 160 children come to the wooden dance sala, or studio, for lessons

in dance, music, and song. Most of them come from desperately poor backgrounds, some

are orphans and live at the sala, others are HIV positive - all are dedicated to

learning Cambodia's traditional arts.

But on August 3, Chhay Sopha, AAA director, received a notice of eviction from local

authorities. The municipality said it plans to install a sewage canal next to Street

598. Sopha was given ten days to dismantle the 6-year-old wooden dance studio, the

dormitory rooms beneath, and forfeit his land.

"I cannot imagine what will happen if they destroy the sala," said Sopha.

"I can't imagine life for me, or for all the children who come here, without

it."

On August 8, the children broke off from their lessons and watched a large yellow

bull-dozer demolish the tin shacks just yards from where they were rehearsing on

AAA's large wooden stage. Eventually, the lesson continued, but any hints of happiness

were impossible to restore.

"Consider the activities of the sala," said Sompen Kutranon, owner of Lotus

Pond Handicrafts and a supporter of the Apsara Arts Association (AAA). "Just

look at the faces of the children, they have suffered so much in their short lives

but here they are happy, here they can learn. If we want to help the children, we

need to save the building."

Sopha bought the land in 1990, and has a certificate to prove it. The old house at

the front of the property was originally where Sopha and his wife, Madame Vong Metry,

a former ballet dancer, lived.

They taught dance to local children in their front room. In 1998, their work caught

the attention of the Kasumisou Foundation, who helped them found the AAA.

In 2001, the foundation funded the construction of the studio and dormitory rooms

at a cost of around $75,000. It is this structure that is now threatened by the city's

impending sewage canal. 

No mention was made in the eviction notice of compensation for the loss of either

the land or the structure. The structure is scheduled to be demolished on August

13.

"It is not enough time to save the building," Sopha said. "Even if

we do have to leave, if we just have a little more time we could take it to pieces

and at least save the wood."

Kutranon said the basis for the eviction appears questionable. Other buildings in

the surrounding area - including a large factory, and a disused warehouse - will

not be demolished.

"It is all about negotiation," said Kutranon. "They say the plan is

to clear the area to create a 'reserve pond' to collect overflowing water - but the

sala is built on stilts. We will happily demolish the downstairs section of the building

if that would help the flow of water, but let us keep the sala itself."

Mark Rosasco, the founder of the Kasumisou foundation, is deeply concerned.

"Although the funding which we provide to the AAA has never been what we would

like it to be, my wife and I have struggled for years to keep it going, inspired

largely by the notion that without the training - not just in dance and music but

in values, self-respect, self-discipline and appreciation for the importance of education-

their lives might go down the sewer," he said.

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