The beat goes on
Cambodia's beat goes on - by Tim Etchells (Guardian.co.uk)
I've recently returned from two weeks in Cambodia, travelling with 18 other artists, dancers, choreographers and performance-makers at the invitation of Ong Keng Sen's Flying Circus Project. Based in Singapore, Keng Sen's Theatre Works outfit has been running these exchanges – predominantly Asian in focus, but with routes out in all directions – for something like 10 years. The intention varies with each incarnation, but the broad hope is for a two-way artistic exchange between invited and local artists, and between the invited artists themselves. To call this latter group diverse would be an understatement: our trip saw passports from Indonesia, Slovenia, Turkey, South Africa, India, UK, Lebanon, Singapore, USA and Austria, among others, landing on the immigration desk in Phnom Penh.
Highly organised and efficient on one hand, Flying Circus also courts a creative openness that at times borders on chaos. The logic for Keng Sen is that the encounter must have its own energy, that the group itself must conjure something new from the situation. An approach like this takes time and nerve, but it undoubtedly pays off.
Looking back, it's hard to say what made the biggest impression on me. The country itself remains blighted by poverty, and still in recovery from the devastation of the Pol Pot era and subsequent years of civil war and instability. Culturally, there's a determined attempt to recover what the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out in its brutal five-year drive to Year Zero, which involved – alongside much else – killing intellectuals, artists, teachers and anyone who spoke French. For this reason, there's much talk of archives, of remembering and preserving. Around 300 feature films were made in Cambodia before 1975, of which as few as 30 now survive. They have been gathered in the last five years and preserved along with other film, sound and photographic materials at the Bophana archive in Phnom Penh, our base for half of the workshops.
The situation is equally dire in the performing arts, since only a handful of classical Khmer dancers survived the killing fields. These old masters are now a precious resource, teaching new generations techniques that otherwise would have slipped away for good. Back home in England, I generally run a mile from people attempting to rescue traditional forms; but in Cambodia, the initiative made more sense – the difference, perhaps, between a past that is dying from irrelevance or lack of interest, and one that has only recently survived assassination.
What I sensed in the younger artists and dancers we worked with, though, was a desire to move forwards with the past, and not to retreat into it. These Cambodian twentysomethings are savvy and hungry, and well aware that their country is opening up, and that internationally financed redevelopment and tourism have been following the inflow of NGOs. They know that they'll need new approaches in the arts, and new political voices to meet the challenges ahead.
I asked Keng Sen what he feared the most from his project. We talked about economic and political dangers (artists as the vanguard for property developers) and about the cultural dangers (Cambodians caught in retreading western postmodern art practice). Then we talked about the positives: the meetings, the collisions, the insistence on and the articulation of differences. There was one moment in the workshops that crystallised these possibilities for me. Tarek Atoui, Lebanese sound artist, ran a session with the Khmer participants that involved sounds collected by the dancers played out from a laptop and a complex array of homemade sensors, motion triggers and pressure pads. It was late in the afternoon when the dancers from Amrita Performing Arts, our hosts for half of the project, took to their feet and began to move in and around Atoui's machinery.
What happened was tentative at first, then suddenly too much. It was as if the dancers wanted to play the system, or make music with it, rather than dance with it. My heart sank. Then all at once they turned a corner and were dancing again – the turning wrists and fingers, lowered centres of gravity, eye contact, pantomime pauses and forward rolls all instantly recognisable from Khmer classical forms. They weren't dancing for the electronics, nor were they dancing with them exactly; they were dancing with and against them, entering and refusing, insisting on and moving through. There was tension in the dancing and music that afternoon, just as there should be on occasions of meeting. It was a privilege and an inspiration to be there. [end]
Today's Phnom Penh Post contains an article by Sarah Outhwaite on the Suites performances as part of Dansez Roam! this coming Friday and Saturday. I have reproduced sections of the article below:
The French musician and the Cambodian dancer work together in perfect tandem, playing their instruments of cello and body. Only when they stop for conversation does distance open between their perspectives on the duet. To the musician, classical heritage has been revered to the point of rigidity. To the dancer, having a classical heritage remains a fragile privilege. Dancer Belle Chumvan and cellist Vincent Courtois rehearse their duet, the centrepiece of this Friday's premier Suites at Chenla Theatre.... The show pairs Johann Sebastian Bach's cello suites with dancers for whom the music is entirely fresh... Performer Chumvan has choreographed an extended solo to the second cello suite. This encounter offers exciting possibilities but also reminds her of the delicate nature of her own sacred dance. "I feel the music is sad," Chumvan says. "I start thinking of all the teachers, singers and master artists who died because of Khmer Rouge. Always the experts." Chumvan is one of nine dancers developing personal interpretations of the Bach suites. A group of Amrita performers collaborates with Courtois on the first suite, and a different group choreographs for the third suite. In the final piece Courtois is joined by young musicians who play harmonies to his Bach cello on their traditional instruments.
Contemporary dance often privileges exploration in this way. Chumvan notes how confusing it can become. "Ten teachers give 10 different ideas," she says. "Not like classical with only one way." Chumvan continues to question what "contemporary" means and how strongly her spirit moves toward it. The very teachers she reveres in her Bach choreography have cautioned her against altering traditions so recently recovered. "The master says, you start to do something crazy? You want to kill classical?' says Chumvan. "But if we have something new, we have a new choice." Chumvan continues to ask hard questions as she develops her ideas and synchronicity with Courtois in preparation for the performance. While rehearsing with the cello, Chumvan's movements radiate from the core of Cambodian dance but extend beyond it with sensitive speed and lizard-like clarity. When young Cambodians tell Chumvan they want to emulate her contemporary style, she asks them, "Do you know Khmer dance? First, you should understand who you are." Hearing this, Courtois gives his own perspective. "You can forget your roots if you know them," he says, indicating his heart. For Chumvan, this point has not yet been reached. "Here, everything develops," she reminds us, "and like everything else, culture is still not really grown up."