Across the tiled floors of a small room in Phnom Penh’s Sisowath High School, a group of young dancers this week stomped, pranced and swayed through a choreography set to both heavy percussion and a gentle melody from Vivaldi.
The unlikely pairing of the music in the piece – which is the finale of a six-part show premiering at the French Institute on Friday night – mirrors that of the dancers themselves. The group is a collaboration of 10 students from France’s Conservatoire de danse de Bagnolet and six from Cambodia’s Children of Bassac, all aged 12 to 17. Together their show will feature a mix of Western classical and contemporary ballet, as well as Cambodian folk and classical dance.
“Dance is a pretext to open the children to a culture that is not their own,” says Claire Baulieu, the conservatory’s director.
They’ve been rehearsing together since February 18, but the actual preparation goes back over a year, when Baulieu connected with Cambodian ballet master Voan Savay and began teaching her students Khmer classical and folkloric dance through France’s Association of Khmer Classical Ballet.
“Compared to French classical dance, [Khmer dance] is equally rigorous . . . both are extremely physical,” Baulieu says, noting that while Khmer dancing may not have big jumps, and requires dancers to keep a more “closed” posture, the movements are extremely refined and require immense concentration.
Baulieu has put together similar dance exchange programs, starting in 2012 through her project Dépaysages choréographiques – roughly meaning “choreographic disorientations”. Previous incarnations have been with the United States and Sweden. With Cambodia, they’ve gone further afield, both culturally and geographically.
“It doesn’t matter that the children cannot speak to each other . . . it shows that dance is a universal language,” Baulieu says, noting that the exchange will also take the dancers from Children of Bassac to France next month to repeat the performance.
In addition to dances from the conservatory’s classical repertoire, the show will feature folk dances from Stung Treng and Svay Rieng, the classical Tep Monorom dance (depicting the courtship of gods and goddesses), and as a finale an original choreography by Edith Bellomo, a professor at the conservatory.
Titled De L’ombre a la lumière – “From shadow to light” – Bellomo says the piece is divided into three distinct acts themed around war, followed by “questioning” and rebirth, and finally reconciliation and friendship.
The choreography is particularly relevant, she says, as 2018 is the 100-year anniversary of the end of the First World War – not to mention Cambodia’s own recent history of war.
“The ending is meant to represent the joy of exchange and friendship, and in this case, the Franco-Cambodian friendship,” she says.