|Belle in Jamaica|
My blog has been a mite quiet on the Belle
front recently. Some may even be unaware of who Belle is. So a timely interview with the lady herself on the Cambodian Living Arts website will bring you all up to speed, before Belle travels halfway around the world to perform in New York in April for the Season of Cambodia program that will be bringing Cambodian artists to the attention of the American public.
Chumvan Sodhachivy, known as Belle, is a
Cambodian contemporary dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher. As a
student, Belle spent 9 years training in Cambodian classical dance at
the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and is now a member of
the Amrita Performing Arts troupe, performing regularly in Cambodia and abroad. She will be appearing in Olden New Golden Blue on April 18-19, 2013, at the Abrons Art Center in NYC as part of the Season of Cambodia festival.
How did you become a recognized dancer and choreographer?
When I was young, my mom was working at the Department of Performing
Arts, both as staff and as a dancer, She pushed me to become a dancer
too, even though at that time I did not particularly like dancing, I was
just following my mom’s will until I was 12 and my teacher selected me
to perform in a public exhibition. When I finished my dance, the
audience began to applaud and I felt so proud of being able to do
something that touched people. I felt so different. I realized that
dance could be a force for change. Dance can make people feel empowered.
This is particularly meaningful to women in Cambodia, as in this
country’s traditions, a woman can’t do what she wants. She has to stay
home and take care of her household. But I believe in stepping beyond
tradition and love dancing and exploring choreography. I am a free woman
and I am happy to show that women can perform and be creative!
In 2003, I discovered Amrita Performing Arts and I started participating
in their workshops on contemporary dance. I felt so inspired! I learned
to explore and create, to be free! Since then I have devoted myself to
dancing and choreography. Dance is my soul, and I want to keep on
improving myself until I am able to give the best that I can give! And I
have to say I am quite thankful to my mother for supporting me. She’s
an old woman now, but she remains open-minded. She always says to me:
“if you think your dream is what’s best for you, then just go ahead and
How are you experiencing choreographing and teaching?
A choreographer has to think one step ahead of the dancer. He has to
envision the whole piece and to express to others, the feelings he has
inside himself. This is a difficult step for many dancers as they are
used to expressing their emotions through movement, not through words.
Learning to create choreography required a lot of effort, and I am still
learning new ways to express my feelings through gestures.
Teaching has been a rich experience for me as well. As a teacher you
need to have an expert understanding of movement. Also, all students are
different. Some are gifted, some may need more time, some are creative,
some just follow. Teachers need to adapt to their students, and help
them to feel and understand each movement. If they put too much pressure
on their students, they won’t be successful in transmitting their
knowledge. So teaching is about finding the right balance and the right
way to explain ideas. This is definitely inspiring me in my work!
Are you trying to deliver a message to your audience through your creations?
I try to show our culture and our society through dance. I want to
express real life on stage. In every creation, I try hard to interpret
the feelings that people have and put them on stage. When I say people, I
am talking about Cambodian people. Dance isn’t only about beautiful
movements and I have never tried to copy contemporary Western dance.
When I express the emotions of the audience from the stage, I am not
offering solutions. I am just hoping to make them think and then take
their thoughts home with them and find the solutions themselves.
For me, dance is about real life and the belief that dance can bring healing and peace.
This is true for the children of poverty, too. When they learn to dance,
their lives are suddenly changed. Dance brings them peace, and a
direction in life. When they get on a stage, they express the best of
It makes me feel so happy when girls come to see me at the end of a
show, although not because of their admiration. When they say “I want to
be like you” and I ask: “Do you want to be a dancer?”,
their answer is, “No, I want to be free”.
What is it like to be an artist in Cambodia?
It is at the same time easy and hard! Easy because I am passionate,
dance is the only thing I want to do. But hard also because it is quite
difficult to find performance opportunities and artists still get paid
very poorly. We artists love what we are doing so we don’t look for
other options, though. We have to always move forward. If one finds
themselves in a bad situation, you have to just keep moving and try to
learn from the tough lessons, so that you can create a better future.
I have travelled abroad and I can see that the situation for artists is
the same in other countries, including the Western ones. Although Europe
and the US are wealthy societies, I have seen that it is very difficult
for dancers to find opportunities and get a decent living there also.
The same is true in other Asian countries, but I believe that things are
improving in Cambodian arts sector. So my hope is that the situation
will get better with time.
Being a contemporary female dancer in Cambodia is sometimes quite
challenging! A lot of Cambodians don’t value women and don’t believe
that women have anything to contribute to culture and the arts. I want
to show them that they are wrong! As for contemporary dance, it is still
something that most people do not understand. But thanks to Amrita
Performing Arts’ efforts for the past 10 years, the situation is much
better now. I would say that one third of the audience still thinks our
performances are just crazy and don’t understand them, but the rest
enjoys our performances even if they don’t always understand their
meaning. This is normal. Sometimes an audience just needs time to
reflect on what they have seen.
Some people still think that by creating new forms of dance, we are
destroying traditional Cambodian culture. Sadly, I’ve heard this from
some of our most respected, elderly, Master Artists. I keep trying to
explaining that we are not destroying culture but rather are building on
the past and developing the existing art forms in new ways. We, young
artists are trying to find pathways along which our arts can evolve.
We’re not killing the arts, we are making them come alive in today’s
world. I always invite my first Master – the one who taught me classical
dance – to my performances. I try to open the discussion with her, and I
also like to receive her comments and suggestions for improvements. As I
am always trying to keep learning and trying to improve myself, any
comment is always welcome.
A lot of criticism of contemporary dance comes from younger people who
don’t know classical dance. So how can they claim that we are destroying
something that they don’t really understand? Many young Cambodians call
any classical dance style “Apsara”, but Apsara is
only one style of classical dance. My answer to them is that all dancers
in our troupe are Cambodian. We all speak Khmer, and we work very hard
to include gestures and elements from Cambodian classical dance. We
respect and make use our traditional background in every performance.
Can you tell us more about Season of Cambodia?
I will be performing Olden New Golden Blue with the Amrita
Performing Arts troupe, a piece that was created in collaboration with
Toronto-based choreographer Peter Chin. Peter used to live in Cambodia,
so he understands Cambodian culture. In this piece we show how the old
can become new, in dance as well as in other things. For example we
include movements from the Cambodian monkey dance to show that we never
forget our history. “Golden blue” refers to the golden age of Angkorian
times, when Cambodia was the most powerful country in this part of the
world. We also show that Cambodia is coming alive again after the blue,
sad times of our more recent past. One always has golden and blue
periods in life.
I am so excited to be part of this festival! This won’t be the first
time for me to go to New York but it will be the first time that I’ll go
as part of a huge Cambodian arts festival that will present all of the
art forms of Cambodia. I am sure Season of Cambodia will raise awareness
about Cambodian culture and will show the world that Cambodia has
changed, that it is no longer a country at war, but rather a country at
peace, where the arts are thriving! It is my hope that in the future,
the world will think of the richness of Cambodian culture rather than
its economic troubles. I think the Season of Cambodia festival will be a
great help to Cambodia as a whole.
Are you working on other projects?
Yes! I choreographed and presented Bach Cello Suites at the Our
Roots Right Now festival in Bangkok last week, and the audience loved
it! They told me they realized that Cambodia was truly developing.
I am also working on a choreography collaboration with Japanese and
Indonesian dancers. And I have recently been touring in Europe with Crack and other pieces.
How are you envisioning arts in Cambodia in the future?
Well, I am just a dancer, I don’t know much about society... But the
arts are definitely connected to the society and the economic situation
of a country, and in my opinion, Cambodia is improving a lot. I believe
that we now have engaged people who are motivated to make this progress
happen. This is not only true for dance, but also for the visual arts,
photography and other performing arts!
A word for your readers everywhere in the world?
You don’t have to understand it immediately, but stay curious and let
artists present you with their creative efforts. Creating is our way to
preserve culture, to make it alive and to share it to the world.
The interview with Belle was conducted by Marion Gommard in January 2013.
Labels: Belle Chumvan Sodhachivy, Season of Cambodia