“When I’m dancing, I feel like everything is gone for a moment,” says Chenda*, a student at Dance Made in Cambodia (DMIC), a youth organisation set to perform a piece of ballet theatre this weekend. She’s not alone: For the dancers taking part – all of whom live in residential care institutions – the performance offers a form of powerful expression, and a taste of freedom.
DMIC works with children from orphanages to develop skills that transfer to their lives outside the studio.
Chenda and Pisey* both study ballet with DMIC, which runs out of the Central School of Ballet Phnom Penh, and say they felt an immediate connection with the story. Ogden, The Fish Who Couldn’t Swim Straight by Gabrielle Yetter follows a fish that falls out of a carnival bag and into his natural habitat, and has to learn to swim outside of the only small world he’s known.
Chenda, 16, who plays the lead character, has lived in a children’s home for six years, and says the concerns she has of leaving residential care resemble those of Ogden.
“Ogden just wants to stay inside his small world, his only safe place,” she says. “I feel a bit like Ogden. I hope that I could stay at the home forever – but I know I can’t.”
A March mapping survey by the Ministry of Social Affairs found more than 18,000 children living in institutions in five target provinces. Following unprecedented growth, the past few years have seen organisations and the government moving slowly to reduce the number of kids in institutional care, many of whom have at least one living parent.
But Chenda, whose parents have passed away, mentions that her experience has provided the opportunities that so many seek: for education and, in this case, art. “My parents are gone, which is very sad. But I feel like it’s good for me, too, because I can study and I can dance ballet,” Chenda says. “If this hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t know what ballet is like.”
Pisey, 17, lives in the same orphanage as Chenda. She points out that if she had stayed with her parents in Kampong Cham, she wouldn’t be at school, and her aim to study law would be unrealistic. Ballet, she adds, “would have been impossible”.
Melissa Gmuer de Mora, DMIC’s liaison at the ballet school, says that reintegration is a complex process – something reflected thematically in the performance, and addressed by the initiative.
“What research has found is when these children leave [residential care], they often become at risk again, and there is a very specific set of skills that they sometimes lack: critical thinking, resilience and perseverance,” de Mora says.
“We find that if they dance, we can build these skills and then transfer these skills into their everyday life,” she says.
Chenda and Pisey both attribute their determination to their dance practice. “If you’re really struggling to do something, you still need to try, because you can find something good out of it,” says Chenda. “It’s connected to ballet: you practise until you can finally do it.”
Students from Dance Made in Cambodia will perform Ogden the Fish tonight at 7:30pm and Sunday, November 6, at 2:30pm and 6:30pm at the ISPP Black Box Theatre. Tickets are on sale at Brooklyn Pizza, Java Café and Gallery and Feel Good 1.
*Names changed to protect identities.