In the latest of Amrita’s popular dance platforms, three young choreographers offer innovative pieces that still honour their parents, grandparents and cultural traditions
In a hot studio behind the National Circus School of Phnom Penh, Amrita Performing Arts are deep into rehearsals for their upcoming dance platform.
Two-dozen dancers sit on the floor, notepads in hand. Most of them aren’t dancing in the three performances being rehearsed, instead, they’re here to provide feedback for the three Amrita choreographers of next week’s show.
The attentive audience watches closely as Nam Narim climbs deftly between the bars of a metal frame, as Soy Chanborey dances in front of a video of his father, and as the trio choreographed by Phon Sopheap roll around the floor wearing traditional masks.
Amrita’s artistic director Chey Chankethya sits in the centre of the group.
“The feedback session is so important,” she explains, speaking during a break for the dancers to drink water and step outside the hot room.
Kethya says that for this platform in particular – Amrita’s sixth – paying close attention to an outsider’s perspective is indispensable: each choreographer is telling such a personal story that they must be careful not to lose perspective.
“There’s nothing more difficult than directing yourself – you have to do a double job,” says Kethya. “There are different layers and perspectives of the choreographers and the dancer.”
Each dance shares the common thread of telling a story about the choreographer’s relationship with someone, or something, close to them. But the ways in which they choose to tell those stories are strikingly different – testament to a company whose members exhibit maturity in developing their own artistic styles.
First-time choreographer Soy Chanborey’s dance is a duet of sorts: he is soundtracked by the voice of his father, a craftsman who works binding books in Khmer fabrics.
Halfway through Borey’s dance, a screen drops behind him and a film about his father’s life starts to play. Borey leaves the stage, only returning to dance in front of the screen for the last few minutes of the piece.
“It’s his solo,” the dancer explains, laughing. “My father shows his activity in the video, and this is my activity.”
Belgian choreographer Jeremy-Lepine Yetsirah is today finishing up four days of dance workshops that he has tentative hopes will become something far bigger – a contemporary Cambodian dance piece with the potential to tour internationally. The workshops, held at Dance World Cambodia with about 20 local dancers, have been introducing participants to Yetsirah’s style, which he describes as “ballet, contemporary and hip-hop … about the experiences I have in the past and those I have now”.
Speaking before the workshop, Yetsirah said that he had little sense of what would come out of the experiment, having never previously watched Cambodian dance – either traditional or contemporary. “I was searching to develop this project in an emerging country,” he says of his choice of location.
“For now, I’m not really expecting to see technical dance, but just want to see something with a strong identity.” Yetsirah said that the end product will in part be determined by seeing how the Cambodian dancers react to his instruction. “It’s a pleasure for me to just teach choreography to someone and see how they will move to it with their own body and their own culture. That’s the interest for me in working with Cambodian dancers.”
The piece choreographed by Nam Narim is another unusual two-hander in which Narim is joined on stage by her grandmother, Em Theay.
Now in her 80s, Em Theay was once a master artist at the Royal Palace, who survived the Khmer Rouge and passed down her craft to a generation of Khmer artists.
As Narim dances, her grandmother sings a boungsoung – a traditional prayer song. The dance, Narim says, is about the passing of time – “the moments in her life that change and [those] that still continue today.”
But there is no nostalgia on show. Narim’s movement conveys repression and the fight for self-expression through a series of frenetic tremors and spasmodic transitions.
The electrically charged movements, taking place within a cage-like structure, have little in common with the fluidity and grace of her grandmother’s generation of artists.
The final dance is something else entirely: a three-man piece choreographed by Phon Sopheap. The dance – by far the longest of the three – is about Sopheap’s training as a traditional masked dancer, telling the story of Sopheap losing his mask and then being reunited with it.
It is by turns hilarious and touching: the dancers take on Hanuman’s playful nature by dancing in unison, pulling faces and jumping on each others backs, then they fragment and the movements become jerky. At one point, all three disappear under a sheet, lit only by torches.
Sopheap is the only choreographer not dancing in his own piece. He sits with the other Amrita members, straight-backed and looking slightly nervous, as his dance is performed.
When his audience laughs in the right places, then bursts into applause at the end, he relaxes. “I get nervous watching,” he explains.
Amrita’s Contemporary Dance Platform is taking place on November 13 and 14 at the Department of Performing Arts, Street 173, at 7pm. Tickets cost $5 ($2.50 for students) and are available at Java Cafe or on the door.