At Amrita’s fourth dance platform, young dancers get into their stride
On stage at the Department of Performing Arts, the shadows of two dancers are illuminated behind a hanging white sheet. Yon Davy, who is both choreographing and dancing in the piece being rehearsed, is moving tentatively. She is trying to work out how close she can get to the pole-stretched expanse of cloth before the movement makes the ceiling-suspended prop start spinning uncontrollably.
Chey Chankethya looks on with a mixture of admiration for the ingenuity of the dancers and exasperation at the challenges posed by the intricate set design. As Amrita’s artistic director, Kethya is the driving force behind the semi-annual dance platform showcase that takes place today. Now in its fourth edition, she says that she has noticed a marked change in the ambition of the young contemporary choreographers it showcases.
“They allow themselves to dream bigger,” Chankethya explains. She is referring not only to the unwieldy stage props in use, but also the subject matter that Davy, Chumvan “Belle” Sodhachivy and Khon Chan “Mo” Sithyka (the three choreographers participating) have each taken as their inspiration.
All three choreographers have presented works in progress at previous platforms. For those first attempts, Kethya, 31, remembers they stuck to what they knew: Belle made a dance about being a dancer, Davy took inspiration from her pregnancy, and Mo presented a duet with his brother on the theme of brotherhood.
“This time they look beyond their own problems. They see the needs of their own society – things beyond themselves”, said Chankethya, who studied dance at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and became the university’s first Fulbright scholar when she started her masters at the University of California.
She adds that the choreographers also appear more at home with the fact that “the term contemporary dance doesn’t mean you have to jump, or be American – you can be yourself”. Whereas previous dance platforms have used abstract, often electronic, music, today’s show will only feature music inspired by classical Cambodian compositions.
Yon Davy’s dance, I in Mine, establishes a striking conflict between inner turmoil and outer calm. In the piece, Davy plays the inner self while another dancer – who happens to be her sister – plays the outer. The backlit sheet on stage denotes the divide between the two.
Davy says she read about human psychology extensively to prepare for the piece. “It helped me to understand myself better, and to be clearer about where I go and what I do,” she says of the hours spent studying.
Like Davy, Belle takes a cerebral approach to her research: her dance Rank 21 was inspired by a Khmer poem by an anonymous 15th or 16th century Khmer author about a fishing trap.
Belle frequently performs internationally as a contemporary dancer with Amrita and is also one of the country’s most esteemed classical dance teachers. She has just returned from a six-month stint in New Zealand on a Royal University of Fine Art’s scholarship, learning about leadership and education.
Belle says that while contemporary dance is sometimes perceived as a less-technically rigorous discipline than classical dance, the skills it has taught her have been invaluable.
“In classical dance we just copy the hand movements of the teacher. We don’t focus inside of our body, we focused on looking pretty on the outside,” she says of her classical training. She insists that the internal posture and breathing techniques she learnt through contemporary workshops now allow her to hold difficult Apsara positions for much longer.
The last dance, Journey, by Mo, is a high-tempo exposition of life’s obstacles and how to overcome them. “It’s got a very positive energy,” Chankethya says of the piece.
This year has so far proved to be a strong one for Amrita. The company has welcomed a revolving door of international choreographers, including New York’s Elizabeth Streb and Indian dancer Umesh Shetty.
Belle and Mo have presented work abroad before, and Davy is soon to do the same. “They are being shown as Cambodian choreographers – we own that,” Chankethya says. “Everything is coming out of the dance platforms.”
And international acclaim is growing off the back of this active schedule. Cambodian contemporary dance has been lauded, Chankethya says, for being energetic and open, while remaining grounded in its own history. “People say that Cambodia is one of the most interesting contemporary scenes in Asia,” she says with pride.
Amrita Contemporary Dance Platform takes place tonight at the Department of Performing Arts, Street 173, 7pm. Tickets cost $3 on the door. On Tuesday at 6pm, the three choreographers will speak about their work (in English and Khmer) during an event at Java Cafe, #56 Sihanouk Boulevard.