Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Focus on Belle

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 do it”.
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 themselves.
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.

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Blogger Joe Bren said...

I'll be in Phnom Penh in March, do you know of any scheduled performances by Amrita Performing Arts or Aspara dance groups in March?

Joe Brennan

February 12, 2013 at 1:03 PM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

i imagine the dancers will be in full rehearsals for their visits to New York, so there might not be anything on offer. However the 6-nights a week shows are taking place the national museum in ppenh and they are worth watching with three different types of show. 3 very different show son offer. in Siem Reap, the usual dance shows are at the hotels with the best one at Raffles in my opinion.

February 12, 2013 at 5:22 PM  

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