dance cambodia

An exchange of art and culture which carries with it a message of peace and caring.

Cambodians passion for the arts

We heard another story about the Cambodians passion for art, dance and music……

There was a Japanese Buddhist monk who came to Cambodia to help in the liberation of Cambodia. When he entered the refugee camps he found people were starving.
When he asked them what they needed him to get for them, they asked him to build a theater for them so that they could dance and play music. This was more important to them even than food – to rediscover their identity through music and dance after the Pol Pot regime had tried to strip them of their humanity. The Japanese monk could not believe that this is what they wanted.

This is an excerpt from a book I am currently reading about the memories of children who survived the regime…. This is the story of a woman called Teeda Butt Mam. The part I am including happened right after the liberation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese..

‘In April 1979, the Buddhist New Year, exactly four years after the Khmer Rouge came to power, I joined a group of corpselike bodies dancing freely to the sound of clapping and songs of folk music that defined who we were. We danced under the moonlight around the bonfire. We were celebrating the miracles that saved our lives. At that moment, I felt that my spirit and my soul had returned to my weak body. Once again, I was human’. Teeda Butt Mam

This is a testimant to the power of dance/art for these people. We have met quite a few artists in Phnom Penh since we arrived and for all of them art and dance is alive in a way that we have perhaps lost touch with in the west.
It represents the foundation of who they are as Cambodians, and as individuals. For them it is an expression of their right as humans to express their richness and diversity. In this context we (our little group of 5) are humbled and overjoyed to be able to share in their deep passion.

In many cases western people are helping in the rebuilding of Cambodia. Fred Frumberg has started an arts organization here called the Amrita Arts Center. He employs dancers on a project to project basis and they are creating modern works that they have been touring throughout Asia (India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea). It is interesting to learn about the dance world in Asia and the many festivals that go on.
He spoke to us about the tradition of dance in Cambodia and the challenge of taking dance into the future without compromising the Cambodian expression. He is very aware of not wanting to impose his vision onto their art form, but wants to support them in finding their own voices of expression.
Yesterday (Thursday) we met some of the dancers at Amrita and spent 3hrs with them finding out about their involvment with dance, and sharing our own. Some of them are beginning to break from tradition and create their own dances, which in Cambodian culture is a HUGE step – something that’s hard for us to comprehend.
We all shared our personal stories with dance. They were very interested in improvisation. They couldn’t believe that we would do a whole performance of improvisation. We did a short demonstrating of improvisation for them. Afterwards a couple of them jumped up and said they wanted to try. We ended up spending a sublime 5 minutes improvising together. Renay and I danced with 5 of them, 2 men and 3 women.
They LOVED it. Once again it’s hard for us to comprehend the HUGE leap it is for them to do something like this when they have grown up within their traditional forms of dance, and a very strict relationship with their teachers both past and present. Dance is a central part of the fabric of Cambodian society (as is music, theater, puppet theater and visual arts) and it is a teachers duty to pass on the knowledge that has been handed down to him/her to the next generation. If you break from tradition in any way you have to ask permission from your teachers. In Cambodia, before you perform a dance, you do long rituals, making offerings to the teachers past and present. In many ways this seems confining to us, but on the other hand there is a relationship of respect and love for dance as a spiritual force that I believe, for the most part, we have lost touch with in the west. As individuals we fall in love with dance. We would never become dancers for other reasons. We will never become rich or be rewarded with material wealth. It is our great love of dancing that moves our spirits, and this is what dancers share all over the world. But in our western culture and the context within which we do our work, there is VERY little support for this way of relating to our art form. Dance is most often viewed as a commodity and it’s worth is accessed according to how much a certain dance can be sold for! Another commodity. This strikes me as deeply sad, and perhaps points to the way our priorities in the west have become very confused.
After dancing together with the young Cambodian company members at Amrita, we watched a dvd of one of the young women’s choreographies – a solo. We were struck by the extraordinary mix of traditional Cambodian gestures with an exploration of a surprisingly modern approach – not in terms of steps, but the way she moved her body through space, and the choices she made with certain props etc. It was quite remarkable.

I was struck by the ease of being and joy that we all shared in that room together at Amrita, seated on the floor, moving our bodies and speaking through the language of dance, English and Khmer. It was an enriching and moving experience for all of us, and I have a feeling holds seeds for future meetings and sharings. All of us from east and west left the building in jubilant spirits, which stayed with us through the evening, eating dinner back in our treasured Boddhi Tree Umma guest house. This is the spirit we have been blessed to experience in this very special place Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


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