Classical Khmer dance being given a makeover to appeal to the young

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The new contemporary dance known as romdoul premiered at the 6th Khmer Cultural Festival in April, receiving rapturous applause for its creativity and liveliness. Photo supplied

Named after Cambodia’s national flower and inspired by traditional Khmer dance, the new contemporary dance known as romdoul premiered at the 6th Khmer Cultural Festival in April, receiving rapturous applause for its creativity and liveliness.

Choreographed by classical dance expert Hang Phumra – also known by his stage name Yey Kantere – romdoul is garnering a lot of interest from both locals and foreigners.

Phumra is director of Khmer Art Reek Sai – a group dedicated to the preservation of Khmer culture through art – and is also head of dance performance group Lakhaon Khaol Youth of Cambodia.

With his expertise in traditional dance, 32-year-old Phumra believes the art form can be re-imagined to fit the modern age and attract a wider audience.

He chose romdoul as the name of the dance as the flower symbolises his and Cambodia’s commitment to environmental preservation.

Phumra says that he aspired to create a modern dance which is lively and dynamic to attract a diverse audience.

“I want to enrich our cultural dances, so we have to diversify it in various forms, with some traditional dances remade into contemporary ones,” he says.

His idea of modernising classical Khmer dance is supported by the government.

“We need to preserve our culture, and develop and promote it in the modern day. I consulted and got approval from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts before I created the romdoul contemporary dance. The dance is inspired by traditional Khmer dance,” Phumra says.

He spent about one month choreographing and designing the props for the new dance, before spending another month training his students.

The remake still bears traditional elements, but it was intentionally energetic to appeal to younger audiences.

“I maintain the traditional costume and the structure of the performers, but I also injected some dynamic choreography into it to make the show more rich and lively,” he says.

Dressed in traditional costume, the team of male and female dancers performing at the 6th Khmer Cultural Festival held six giant petals of the fragrant romdoul flower – officially recognised as Cambodia’s national flower by King Sihamoni in 2005.

The performance represented the growing allure of a contemporary Khmer dance, which is attracting more attention from local audiences than never before.

Previously, contemporary dance was regarded as a foreign influenced art form, occasionally frowned upon by traditionalists and conservation groups.

One example of this is the Siem Reap based all-female troupe New Cambodian Artists, who say they have often been regarded as harming Cambodian culture.

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Classical dance expert Hang Phumra (front centre) chose romdoul as the name of this performance as the flower symbolises his and Cambodia’s commitment to environmental preservation. Photo supplied

Speaking to The Post prior to their 2017 Water Music/Without Sinking performance – which contains hidden messages about climate change and peoples’ relationship with the earth – one of the group’s four dancers Khon Sreynuch said: “To be a contemporary dancer in this country is really too hard, because you don’t get much support from the social environment. They say, ‘you are dancing girls, you are not good, you are not pure, you are slut, you are crazy.’

“New is not always bad because we can improve our dance, our art, our culture.”

This is a perspective shared today by Phumra, who believes the Cambodian art scene should welcome new and unusual art forms.

“I think that to recreate our traditional dances into a contemporary style is not harmful to our culture and identity. The original form still remains. We recreate to make it more attractive to a new audience."

“A good example is our traditional dance Lakhaon Khaol, which is my expertise. If we didn’t introduce anything new to it, it would definitely not attract a big enough audience,” he says.

Phumra has successfully won the hearts of young audiences through his ability to make classical dance both educating and entertaining.

“We need to inject some energy into the performance which can surprise the audience. Sometimes the monkey dancer can improvise his or her performance by showing friendliness with the spectators. The playful monkey dancer can come down the stage and get close to the audience. The performance can sometimes be a bit humorous, making them laugh and enjoy the performance more than ever. To me, this kind of improvisation is positive and creative,” he says.

Besides romdoul, Phumra also welcomes more opportunities to choreograph and direct other new forms of dance based on traditional elements. He also revealed plans to create a mega-performance mixing classical and modern dance for the opening ceremony of Cambodia’s third National Games in 2020.

“It’s not only romdoul traditional dance that can be made into a contemporary performance. There are many other traditional dances that we can recreate into a modern form and I think we should do that too."

“I have an ambition to make another huge project happen. After leading the Kroma Youth Dancers successfully in front of 1,014 people at the opening ceremony of the second National Games in 2018, I’m working on creating a big group of mixed dancers of more than 1,000 people who will be trained to put on a spectacle at the next one,” he says.