Cultural Season 2020 explores ‘identity’

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Performances highlighting the cultures and heritage of minorities are scheduled through November 22 at the National Museum. Hong Menea

The Cultural Season, a programme first introduced in 2018 to celebrate the cultural richness and diversity of the Kingdom, has returned this year under the theme, Expressing Identities: Them and/or Us.

It brings with it messages of inclusivity delivered in a string of traditional musical and theatrical performances.

Hosted by the oldest art organisation in the country, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), the two-month event kicked off on October 1 at the National Museum with a traditional Sompeas Krou performance, which is a ritual of paying respect to masters.

Events are planned through November 22 and will feature a variety of performances including dances performed by ethnic minorities, contemporary dances by experienced veterans and emerging artists, newly composed traditional music, spoken theatre, Grandpa’s Chapei (Khmer traditional long neck guitar) shows, panel discussions and interactive programmes.

The theme was chosen to help the public define the meaning of “identity” and encourage them to resist discriminating against people.

In 2018, the first edition of the Cultural Season lasted from July to September and featured performances, panel discussions, film screenings, exhibitions and workshops conducted under the theme Exploring Identities.

The event was skipped in 2019 before returning this year. In the second edition of the Cultural Season, the organisers hope to inspire people to think openly about their identity and that of others.

Understanding Diversity

Yon Sokhorn, the programme’s project manager, tells The Post: “The Cultural Season is a thematic programme that focuses on identities by exploring, expressing and (re)creating them.”

She explains that Expressing Identities: Them and/or Us was specifically chosen because in the ever-changing society created by globalisation, immigration and development presents an opportunity to redefine what is meant by identity.

Diversity’s role in contemporary Cambodian culture and identity is put in the spotlight as Sokhorn raises some controversial questions such as: “So how are different minorities, including indigenous people, Vietnamese, Cham, Chinese and Lao integrated?

“Does the emergence of diverse expressions [like contemporary arts, LGBT] necessarily oppose dominant culture? How are they represented and from which point of view? Can all these different groups be together as ‘us’ or should they be separated as ‘them’?”

The Cultural Season aims to enhance understandings of what it means to be an integrated and inclusive society that reflects diversity while still representing Cambodia.

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Contemporary dancing is celebrated alongside traditional performances. Hong Menea

“Should these differences be united as in the US by including everyone and making them feel a sense of belonging or should they be separate from the dominant culture as ‘Them’?” Sokhorn asks.

“The aim of choosing Expressing Identities: Them and/or Us is to open a discussion by welcoming new insightful points of view and including the voices of artists and audience members.

“It doesn’t mean the previous definition [of identity] is not right, but it is also useful to look at the present,” Sokorn says.

Showcasing traditional cultures

At the opening event, the traditional Sompeas Krou performance was followed by a dance piece called My Village Traditions which was performed as a dress rehearsal on October 3 and as a full performance on October 4 by a troupe from Steung Treng province’s Kouy community.

Dressed in traditional costumes with vivid colours, the routine was presented in the Kouy language and tells the story of their livelihoods, beliefs, language and their relationship between their intangible cultural heritage and nature.

Sokhorn tells The Post: “Ethnicity is the starting point and inspiration for other dances, especially for the folk dances [like Ploy Suoy, sacrificial dances and the buffalo dance], which is researched and choreographed by the Department of Performing Arts in Phnom Penh.”

Apart from traditional dances, a new contemporary dance entitled Root will be performed as a dress rehearsal on October 17, followed by a full performance the next day.

The dance will be performed by six artists who practise different art forms ranging from classical dance, folk dance, Lakhon Khol, Yike, Lakhon Bassac, and circus dances. They will express their relationship with their own art and reflect on their roots.

Root is choreographed by Nget Rady, a 32-year-old contemporary dancer and a staff at Royal University of Fine Arts.

He decided to take part in the Cultural Season to give traditional artists a chance to showcase their new work to the public.

The show will combine various art forms into one piece of contemporary dance.

Rady says: “At the beginning of the performance, we will introduce our audience to get to know our artists, who all come from various backgrounds. The introduction will hint at the progress of the story. We’ll also provide a glimpse of what goes on backstage as well.”

Since the artists have extensive experience in performance, it only took us between 15 and 20 days to rehearse. We also offered payment for the artists during the rehearsal period.”

Encouraging inclusivity

In November, the Cultural Season will present an eye-opening show called Arts and Environment which is a work of newly composed traditional music that reflects on the importance of the relationship between nature, the environment, and people’s livelihoods.

Ly Vanthan, a musician from the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, helped compose new traditional music with 12 artists from different generations, backgrounds and locations.

“To create this performance, it’s convenient and quick to compose new music or melodies for me. But the elder musicians need time to adapt to the new ideas presented by newly composed traditional music. They struggled to remember the melody and how to play it.

Arts and Environment won’t include lyrics. Rather it uses melody and the sound of music to focus on mood,” he says.

The Cultural Season can also give young and experienced artists alike an opportunity to create new works of art, according to Choeun Socheata, a communication and outreach coordinator for the programme.

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The Culutral Season helps ensure the survival of traditional music and cultures. Hong Menea

“It’s not only about promoting Khmer arts but also encourages a discussion on the theme Expressing identity: Them and/or Us.

“We want the event to be inclusive for everyone, including minorities, the LGBT community and practitioners of different religions.

“Most of the performances in this event, such as the contemporary dances, the newly composed spoken theatre and ethnic minority performances are connected and carry an educational message about racism or discrimination,” Socheata says.

Since the event is taking place during a pandemic, safety measures approved by the ministries of Health, and Culture and Fine Arts will be strictly implemented at the CLA Theatre at the National Museum, including social distancing, hand hygiene and temperature checks.

“I hope that more people will join this event. Khmer arts nowadays are not promoted enough. Youths especially are encouraged to join to gain an insight into the Khmer arts.

“The performances don’t directly tell the audience [how to think] as the artists just provide a bit of spectacle to evoke audiences’ critical thinking,” she says.

The public can attend both the dress rehearsals and the full performances during the Cultural Season.

Dress rehearsal tickets cost 6,000 riel ($1.50) and a pass to all dress rehearsal shows costs 30,000 riel. For full performances, a ticket to one show costs 15,000 riel while a pass to all shows costs 75,000 riel.

Tickets are available at CLA Theatre at the National Museum or by telephone at 098584542, 093485898 or 012835462.

More information about the schedule of performances can be found in the Cultural Season 2020 brochure which can be downloaded from www.cambodianlivingarts.org or CLA’s Facebook page.