Dancing around history – Cambodian Living Arts, Phnom Penh

It’s the foot mobility that most impressed me at first, but ultimately my full adulation goes to the man who stood as an extra pair of arms, immobile behind some divinity or other. He had to hold a conch shell and a sun-shaped form aloft for absolutely ages.  Do you know how hard it is to hold your hands above your head for any length of time?  Just try it, and then be in awe of this achievement.

The foot action was pretty astounding though.  I mean, I know I have reduced mobility in my toes what with arthritis and bunions and generally hobbit-like feet, but I had no idea that anyone else had feet that could perform such, well feats!  (Pun intended).  Check out that foot flexibility… and as for the hands, is that normal?  Is that wise?  Their fingers seem to bend backwards.  You have to be impressed, slightly alarmed for sure, but impressed also.

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So I’m talking about going to see a performance by the Cambodian Living Arts dance and music troupe in Phnom Penh.  They perform at a small theatre on the site of the National Museum. It costs $15 for a ticket – you can pay more for one or two cushions and a bottle of water, but the venue is small enough that you can see pretty well even from the ‘cheap seats’.   As my photos don’t really do the show justice, you can if you prefer look at a video clip preview of their dance show on their Cambodia Living Arts website:


I think they are every night during the dry season, but possibly only weekends during the dry, but check for yourself.   I got tickets on the day, but early on, I think you’d be taking  a risk just to turn up.

It’s fun arriving at the Museum after dark.  There were jolly cut-outs of the dancers – including the genius inclusion of one you can stick your heads through for photographic purposes (I know it’s very realistic, but I’m not actually dancing with the troupe) and a line of lanterns line the route to the theatre.

We arrived bang on 6.30 when the doors opened, but a large queue of people already waiting in line meant we got seated right at the back, but you can still see.  The show lasts about an hour, and comprises about 6 or 7 dance routines based on different traditions.  The importance of water; picking cardaman; the battle between demons and gods that kind of thing.  Before each dance, they project up a paragraph indicating what it is to represent.  The costumes are lavish and stylised, the dancers youthful.

It sounds naive, but I hadn’t previously considered that in addition to the many human casualties of the Khmer Rouge cultural heritage was also almost annihilated as the clock was turned back to agrarian year zero, and that meant all there was left was ‘work and death’.  Musicians, dancers, story tellers were of course among those killed.  The Cambodian Living Arts website states:

For most of its history, Cambodia was home to some of the most diverse and abundant arts and culture in Southeast Asia. There were singers on every corner, musicians in every village and a dancer in every child. Music, dance and theater flourished. But in the years between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge put a devastating end to that. During those years, 2 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation and overwork; among the dead were 90% percent of Cambodia’s artists, who were specifically targeted for execution. This was a ruinous blow to Cambodia’s artistic heritage, especially given that skills were passed from master to student orally, and were rarely written down. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, this tragedy was compounded by two subsequent decades of crippling economic hardship. Of the Master Artists who miraculously survived, few could make a living by performing or teaching.

The CLA set out to

support Cambodian Master artists of the traditional arts who managed to survive the Khmer Rouge but were living in poor conditions after the war. We set two main goals: to recover Cambodian arts heritage, which was left seriously damaged after the war,  and to also help artists to sustain themselves. Hence during our early years, CLA’s work focused on the development of two main training programs: Artist Development and Learning and Leadership. Both programs are complementary to each other and are intended to provide both artistic and non-artistic skills to our trainees, so that they are ready to face a professional life once they leave the school.
There is a whole article all about them in the FCC Phnom Penh News if you are interested (Nov Dec 2016 edition).
This is all worthy and important and I would recommend the show.  It is short at just over an hour, but full or colour and exuberance.  I have to be honest and say that I appreciated the performance more than I embraced it.  I felt strangely unmoved and detached whilst watching it, it somehow lacked the exuberant passion and physicality of say the Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap, but that is probably a reflection on my appetite for traditional dance rather than on the performance.  This is quite a disciplined and stylised display, I have no idea if it is authentic or not, it seemed to have  a rather formal and sanitised feel to it.  Perhaps because performing to artists sat in a forward facing auditorium is such an artificial way for it to exist, still, it is existing, and it is important, and it is worthwhile.
Even so, there were moments of genius. I loved the praying mantis dance!  Coconut shells on elbows, hands and strapped to the sides of their thighs added percussion brilliance that was reminiscent of Status Quo doing thier playing each others guitar routines.  Can’t find a photo of that, gutted.  Do have one of the praying mantis routine in part.  It doesn’t convey how they used their coconut shells to hit other dancers’ coconut shells throughout the routine.  The photos are, I concede, disappointing, maybe you just have to be there!

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Then there was the dance between a peacock and a peahen. Only it looked suspiciously like two peacocks to me.  Unexpectedly progressive in the context of rather modest and traditional Cambodian values.

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It was all very pleasing.  I’m glad I went, probably wouldn’t rush back, but I would recommend, and I understand you can also go to see rehearsals by arrangement and even get a private dance lesson if the urge takes you, that probably would be a fun option.  Here are some more random blurred shots of the dancing to convey the mood.  Seems a shame to waste them even if they don’t do the spectacle justice.

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At the end of the performance, there was a curtain call that revealed the size of the troupe.  Well over thirty, plus musicians.  Someone came and gave a plea for ongoing support for their work, but alas, his microphone wasn’t working, so I couldn’t really make out what he was saying. The audience members were however urged to leave positive feedback for the show, make donations and offered the opportunity to pose with the troupe.  Personally I didn’t feel the need.  I make it an unwritten rule never to stand too close to people who are so manifestly better appointed than me in the physical attraction stakes for a photograph unless it is rude not to or the reward outways the risk.  In this context, the juxtaposition of my rotund form alongside these nymphs and chrubs would be too much to bear.  Some did though.

and so we filed away, past the souvenier stall, the lit up museum and the finely hiding elephant.

and then back to the hostel noticing the contrast between our lives and the still, silent homeless, stretched out on the streets, lining our route to the guest house. This is a country of contrasts indeed.

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