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Modern dancers go toe-to-toe with Cambodian tradition

What happens to a classic when it’s combined with modern ideas? In Cambodia, officials’ concern for traditional culture – four decades after it was threatened by the Khmer Rouge – is not preventing new art from being created. But a contemporary dance company is challenged by little money and limited access to an audience that could ensure its survival. 

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Sros Sreynich (l.) and Ny Lai, members of New Cambodian Artists, the country's first contemporary dance company, rehearse.

Nathan A. Thompson

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Performing a dance in red stilettos is not allowed at Angkor Archaeological Park, but that’s not stopping Khun Sreynoch from working on it.

As members of Cambodia’s first contemporary dance company, Ms. Sreynoch and her closest colleagues have known each other since they were children studying Cambodian classical dance, or Apsara. But in fusing old and new, the innovations of the New Cambodian Artists (NCA) have conflicted with traditionalists who want to protect Apsara from what they see as dilution.  

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“If I use high heels to perform Apsara moves [the conservatives] will say I’m destroying Cambodian culture,” says Sreynoch. “But I don't think so. I’m developing it and making it fresher and more special.”

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In 2016, NCA was banned from performing at the nearby Angkor UNESCO World Heritage site – which attracted about 2.5 million visitors last year – because their style was “not Cambodian enough” and their costumes were “too sexy,” according to Kong Soengva, another dancer.  

Long Kosal, spokesman for the Apsara Authority, which manages the temple site, refused to comment on the case. “All performers are welcome to submit requests [to perform at the park] and we will decide if it is suitable or not,” he says by phone.

Tasked with protecting Cambodian culture, the Apsara Authority and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art decide which artists are certified to perform in public areas. “It’s difficult to find a balance between those who are very conservative, the modernists, and those in the middle,” says Hab Touch, director general of the Ministry. (Apsara is a name for a female heavenly spirit in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, as well as shorthand for the female classical dancers in Cambodia and the style of traditional dance they perform.)

“We want contemporary art but Cambodian contemporary art,” he says, sitting in front of several framed certificates from UNESCO that designate Apsara dance as part of the intangible culture of humanity. He adds that he is concerned about dancers importing Western styles and losing their roots.

That concern is perhaps heightened by the fact that Cambodia’s classical art was nearly destroyed forever during the Khmer Rouge years. In the late 1970s, the brutal regime targeted artists and killed almost all dance masters in the country.

“The form was nearly lost,” says Emmanuèle Phuon, a French-Cambodian choreographer who studied at the Cambodian Royal Ballet before the Khmer Rouge seized power. “There is a need to conserve and perpetuate that form.”

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“To get a lively, thriving culture of dance, first you need to rekindle the interest in dance,” she says, via email. “If the new forms motivate some people to protect the old form, that’s wonderful! Unfortunately, the main problem [in Cambodia] is that very few people really care.”

The fusion of Apsara dance with contemporary styles is unique, says Dutch artistic director Bob Ruijzendaal. He founded the company in 2012 before handing over ownership to the dancers in 2016. “In Apsara dance, the back is hollow, they have flat feet, very grounded toes and the hands are overstretched,” he says. “[They do] everything they would kill you for in classical dance course in Europe.”

The distinctive hand gestures are called chib in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. Here, young dancers perform intense finger stretches every day to create gestures that mimic the growth of a tree, from seed to branch. Srey Nich, another NCA dancer, demonstrates the stretch by dragging her fingers terrifyingly far back towards her forearm. On the dance floor in their single-story, tin-roofed studio, the dancers’ movements unfold like a conversation: a pirouette is answered by an Apsara pose, using rooted feet and fingers spiked like a cactus.

Indifference from locals and a lack of cultural infrastructure are challenges NCA work with on a daily basis. Ellen Steinmüller, a German-born dance artist, was struck by the situation when she visited NCA to volunteer in 2016.

“Cambodia faces a lack of cultural infrastructure that is hard to appreciate from a Western perspective,” she says, writing in Culture360. “The radical policies of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s left Cambodia deeply scarred…. The result is a lack of artistic development and funding as well as a lack of public accessibility and engagement.”

Mr. Touch says the ministry is doing its best within a limited budget. “We only have small spaces for our artists to show their work,” he says. “Classical Cambodian dance is very important for the world and we are moving, step-by-step, to support contemporary dance too.”

In their studio, the NCA dancers move fluently across the only sprung floor – a must for modern dancers – in the country. They built it themselves, according to Mr. Ruijzendaal. “It’s a layer of rubber, a layer of planks, and then more rubber and wood, so it’s always soft,” he says.  

The dancers move offstage and the lights dim. A spotlight falls on Sreynoch, who begins her solo wrapped in a traditional woolen cloth. She moves, as if aged, towards a lone microphone.

The dance is a tribute to her grandmother, who was a lesbian. “She divorced my grandfather and lived with her girlfriend,” Sreynoch says. “She is my first role model because she chose her own life and didn’t care [about conventions].”

After telling the story into the microphone, Sreynoch puts on the stilettos and fashions her body into heavenly Apsara shapes, hands stretched like starfish. “The red shoes show that I’m a strong Cambodian lady,” she says.

Then she abandons the shoes and launches across the floor in a series of barefoot bounds and athletic swoops. “I don’t need the red shoes either; I’m strong enough,” she says. “The dance shows the evolution of character.” She finishes and the others applaud, “Bravo!”

“People will think [their performances are] provocative, but artists should be a little provocative,” Ruijzendaal says. “They’re real artists in that sense.”

Ms. Soengva sips a cup of coconut juice and nods. “It’s very daring to change the tradition, but we like it.”