Although the four female dancers at the heart of the Siem Reap-based troupe New Cambodian Artists (NCA) are trained in the classical art of Khmer dance, their main focus is on developing a culture of contemporary dance in the Kingdom.
It has not been smooth sailing.
For most of their existence, they were certified to perform only classical Khmer dance at the landmark Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap – and that was because of paperwork: the certificate issued to the troupe by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts was solely for classical dance.
To complicate matters further, a certificate for contemporary dance didn’t exist.
But last month, after a year of lobbying, the ministry drafted and issued NCA with a contemporary dance certificate. The recognition of NCA as the country’s first contemporary dance troupe was a big step forward: it meant NCA’s dancers could exhibit their contemporary dance skills not only at the temples but also at hotels inside and outside Cambodia.
“We are very happy to have the certificate, and now it’s easy to perform in the temples,” says 19-year-old dancer Khon Sreynuch, who dreams of performing in Paris “where we can show ourselves to the world”.
This weekend, the troupe will be showing off their contemporary dance skills somewhat closer to home: in Phnom Penh at the Jolana Jongjam II (Movement Memory 2), where they will share the stage with Kampot-based Epic Encounters, a group of artists, some with disabilities and some without.
This four-evening festival of contemporary dance, which is aimed at young people and runs from September 1 through 4, sees the performers exploring memories through movement. It is being put on by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), a non-profit that promotes transformation through the arts.
Last year’s festival focused on the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime; this year’s looks at personal memories and identity. It will build on the success of the first festival, says CLA program director Yon Sokhorn.
“Often, when people think of Cambodian art, they are not really open to new forms that are creative, dynamic and engaging,” says Sokhorn. “In these performances, it’s not just about the past; it’s about using your own stories to perform, during your own time, and about being relevant.”
On Thursday and Friday, NCA performed two of their better-known pieces: the first, Bach/Tango, which melds the German master’s cello suites with Cambodian traditions, American jazz and Argentinean tango; the second – Growing Up In Public – is about the dancers’ experiences as they became “strong, expressive artists”.
The weekend performances, which take place at the National Museum of Cambodia, will see the NCA troupe put on a new show: a 40-minute piece titled Dance to the Moon. NCA’s artistic director Bob Ruijzendaal describes it as “a theatrical dance piece with a dreamlike associative structure”.
“In this performance, four dancers reflect on their past, present and future as dancers and females,” he says. “Dance to the Moon is a piece about the pain and happiness it brings to be a dancer. And if we’re really down, we sing and dance to the moon and the stars will shine. And so will we.”
Dance to the Moon features the troupe’s newest member, 19-year-old Ny Lai. It is a daunting beginning: her character is the sole performer on stage during the opening moments where she must portray a dancer who is vulnerable, hopeful and on the edge of greatness.
“It’s new. It’s different. It’s Cambodian,” Ruijzendaal says. “You will be amazed – a new generation of young Cambodian women, strong, emotional and brilliant.”
That brilliance comes from years of hard work. But their skills are not just about application; in addition to daily rehearsals, performances and teaching, the dancers take pride in performing in isolated village communities to showcase their art and to become role models for young village girls.
The four NCA dancers – Sreynuch, Lai, Sorn Sreynith, 21, and Kong Seng Va, 18 – must also balance work with learning; three have received grants to study English, which will help them promote the troupe’s work to a wider audience.
Future projects include a touring show aimed at men and women and focused on combating gender-based violence. That show is being put together by NCA with help from German dancer and psychotherapist Ellen Steinmuller in conjunction with two women’s NGOs: Banteay Srei and the Women’s Resource Centre. Funding permitted, that show will travel the country later this year.
New Cambodian Artists perform tonight and tomorrow at the National Museum of Cambodia at 7pm. Tickets ($2.50), and can be bought at the office of Cambodia Living Arts or on the door of the venue (space permitting). For more information, call: 017 998 570.