Dancing as the bombs fell: Exhibit shows slice of life before city’s fall

Classical dancers Menh Kossony (far left), Prum Sisaphantha and Om Yuvanna are captured in Colin Grafton’s rare pre-1975 photographs, on exhibition at the Bophana Center tonight. Colin Grafton
Classical dancers Menh Kossony (far left), Prum Sisaphantha and Om Yuvanna are captured in Colin Grafton’s rare pre-1975 photographs, on exhibition at the Bophana Center tonight. Colin Grafton

Dancing as the bombs fell: Exhibit shows slice of life before city’s fall

Ten years ago, in Tokyo, photographer Colin Grafton stepped inside a Cambodian restaurant and was handed a flyer for a Khmer classical dance performance that evening, featuring veteran Om Yuvanna.

He immediately recognised the image on top. He had taken it in 1973. In the black-and-white photo, a young Yuvanna checks herself in the dressing-room mirror before a show at Phnom Penh’s National Theatre. The performance was rare: one of the few to take place in the capital in the midst of civil war.

In an interview this week at the Bophana Center, where a collection of his photographs titled Dancers 1973 goes on exhibition tonight, the semi-retired Grafton remembered the hazy details of the event with a hint of nostalgia.

“The National Theatre was usually closed because of bomb scares,” he said. “I can’t remember how I found out about it. I’m sure I didn’t buy a ticket.”

Grafton headed to the dressing room before the event began. Backstage, he captured a striking black-and-white record of the dancers’ pre-stage routine: a flurry of last-minute preparations and glimmering apsara crowns. Outside, the auditorium was nearly at capacity. Grafton and a French photographer were the only two foreigners present.

In the capital in 1973, film was scarce. “Every shot counted,” Grafton said. A few of the pictures are fuzzy, but his fared better than the other photographer’s images, which didn’t have enough light. Grafton recalls lending him some prints afterward.

In some of the images, masters Soth Sam On, who appears in many of the era’s films, and Neang Kem Bunnak move across the stage with grace. Others are captured on the film, as well: Yuvanna, as a backup dancer, and Menh Kossony, who later worked as a dance teacher and is currently a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

In 1973, Kossony danced in the buong suong, a prayer for rain – and for peace. She hadn’t seen the full set of photos until last year. “I didn’t notice Mr Colin,” she said via telephone this week. “But I am so thankful that he kept the photos of us – after the war, we never had our own.”

A teacher by trade, Colin Grafton had travelled to Phnom Penh in 1972 to design a curriculum for an English-language centre. Some of Grafton’s other photos on display were taken in 1974, a set of shop prints of his friend and colleague Prum Sisaphantha.

Photographer Colin Grafton has collected shots he took in Cambodia pre-1975 for an exhibition at the Bophana Center.
Photographer Colin Grafton has collected shots he took in Cambodia pre-1975 for an exhibition at the Bophana Center. Athena Zelandonii

Before the war, Phantha had begun work on a book exploring the meaning of various kbach, or classical hand gestures, and wanted some illustrations. “She disappeared for a few minutes and came back dressed like this,” Grafton recalled, brandishing the prints of Phantha in full costume. She kept the negatives, which were destroyed.

Grafton left Pochentong Airport on an empty rice plane bound for Thailand on April 7, 1975. From Bangkok, he travelled to Laos and then on to Japan, where he remained intermittently for a number of years. In the 1980s, he worked in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand as an interpreter and photographed the first classical dance classes there – “the revival”, he said.

Grafton acquired a visa back to the Kingdom in 1992, and resettled in Phnom Penh permanently last year. He decided to submit the images of the performance and of Phantha, as well as some from Khao-I-Dang, to Bophana’s archive, where they filled a missing piece: a portrait of urban daily life during the war.

“They were excited, because they didn’t have photographs of everyday life during this period – just plenty of battle footage,” he said. “I took a lot of pictures of people.”

The photographer has since connected with some of the dancers – from Yuvanna in Tokyo, to Cambodia and France.

When he returned to the Kingdom, he met the choreographer Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro, who immediately identified many of the women in the photographs, including Kossony and Phantha. Some names remain a mystery, but one he hopes a public exhibition might solve.

Grafton and Phantha reunited last year. She’s still working on her book of gestures. Phantha, Yuvanna and Kossony sat for new portraits last week, which will go up on a wall at Bophana.

Grafton hasn’t conclusively worked out how Yuvanna ended up with the photo she chose for the flyer. They’ve traced the print to a Cambodian director, who says he picked up a copy from someone in Paris. Grafton’s bets are on the French photographer he helped out that evening 43 years ago.

An exhibition of Colin Grafton’s photographs, Dancers 1973, opens tonight at 6pm at the Bophana Center, #64 Street 200. The exhibition will run through April 28.

Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.

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