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Evoking tragedy through movement

Most of Epic Encounters’ dancers are disabled in some way
Most of Epic Encounters’ dancers are disabled in some way. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Evoking tragedy through movement

Three very different dance companies have taken on the challenge of commemorating the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh

In a city with limited options for contemporary dance lovers, the variety on show at this weekend’s Jolana Jongjam (Movement Memory) festival will be refreshing, and possibly surprising. The three-day platform started yesterday, continues today and hosts its biggest event on Sunday, when three groups – Epic Encounters, New Cambodian Artists and the PanDance Project – will all be performing new compositions from 7pm.

The series of performances is taking place as part of Acts of Memory – a program of events run by the Bophana Centre and Cambodian Living Arts to mark 40 years since the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.

But while they may be united by the theme of memory and the act of dance, the three participating groups have little else in common: Epic Encounters is part of the Epic Arts NGO based in Kampot, and seven of their eight dancers are in some way disabled; New Cambodian Artists is a relatively recent quartet of four female dancers based in Siem Reap, and The PanDance Project is an ad hoc collection of three dancers – two classically trained, one specialising in hip-hop – who work on and off with choreographer Gillian Rhodes in Phnom Penh.

Yet despite their very different backgrounds, and the fact that there was no coordination prior to this weekend’s platform, the approach each group has taken towards its difficult subject matter has been strikingly similar.

All have made a conscious choice to avoid visually detailed references to the events of the 1970s, relying instead on dance’s ability to evoke emotions in ways that go beyond a literal narrative.

“I didn’t want to do anything specific, or recreate something that happened,” said Rhodes of the piece she choreographed for The PanDance Project. “I was trying to figure out a story I had the right to tell being a barang.”

The dance that Rhodes has produced, titled The Things They Carried after Tim O’Brien’s book of the same name about the Vietnam War, chooses instead to invoke the civil war and Khmer Rouge as an abstract arc of struggle.

“What I was trying to do was make it a general enough story that it can apply to anything: a before, during and after struggle, whatever it may be,” Rhodes explained.

Come Back Brighter – the piece produced by Epic Encounters under the direction of Amrita-trained choreographer Nam Narim – has a similar arc, and a similar set of sensibilities attached to it.

“The piece is in three parts, and starts with 1960s songs, video clips and costumes: old jackets and sparkly dresses, with lots of twist movements,” explained Laura Evans, arts adviser at Epic Arts.

The PanDance Project’s piece The Things They Carried uses an abstract approach to tackle a difficult subject.
The PanDance Project’s piece The Things They Carried uses an abstract approach to tackle a difficult subject. Charlotte Pert

As the Khmer Rouge arrives, the number of dancers thins, and traditional clothes replace sparkly outfits.

“It’s a very touchy thing to look at, so we focused on the idea of repeatedly growing rice,” Evans said of the transition. “The performers get more tired and slower as they do the movements.”

New Cambodian Artists have also leaned heavily on the current wave of nostalgia for Cambodia’s swinging ’60s, even using one of the same popular tunes as Epic Encounters: Yos Olarang’s Jis Cyclo. The group, who choreographed Sronoh (lament) collaboratively, have avoided the issues that come with trying to depict the Khmer Rouge on stage by opting instead to take their inspiration from its historical prelude: the devastation wrought by US bombs dropped on Cambodia.

“But it’s not like the piece is about the bombing,” explained the group’s adviser, Bob Ruij Zendaa. “It starts there and then it’s about fear, devastation, having to find yourself again, going back to work and being disrupted again.”

A need to approach the subject tactfully was not the only problem shared by choreographers: organisers at both Epic Arts and New Cambodian Artists cited a striking lack of awareness among their performers about what happened under Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979.

“In any gas station, you can buy books about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but they’re for tourists,” said Ruij Zendaa. “It’s not really part of the education here. Or it is, but it’s very superficial.”

Evans said it was a situation that had to be handled delicately at Epic Arts: how to inform performers in a way that helped to heal rather than to traumatise. She explained that the solution had been to place the emphasis on the huge losses to the arts rather than the loss of human life.

“We focused a lot on getting them to look at the arts before the Khmer Rouge and now, and asking [the performers] what had happened in between those two places.”

Evans said that she was primarily excited by the festival because the three dance groups were performing as equals. “We were really happy to be approached as a team of artists with the subject of disability not discussed,” she said. “We’ve been pushing for these last few years for that.”

Sronoh will be performed at the National Museum today at 7pm. All three performances will be performed tomorrow from 7pm, also at the National Museum. Tickets cost $2.50 and can be purchased on the door.

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