Sunday, April 4, 2010

Mixing styles

Belle, during a solo in the show, gives the piece a certain gravitas
The final performance of Movin' at Sovanna Phum took place tonight and it was really great to see a packed house and six young members of the Cambodian dance scene giving their all in a 55 minute show, mixing classical, contemporary and just plain fun. I won't pretend to understand what every gesture meant, much as I don't with classical dance - I never used to watch dance before I came to Cambodia - but the six performers had the audience in tears and laughter and that's not easy to accomplish. The show began with some shadow-puppet inspired movements and then ranged between lots of classical hand gestures and moves to a free and easy style that can only be described as 'letting yourself go.' Belle was her usual accomplished self, carrying off each of her dances with the excellence of the seasoned professional that she is. This was well within her ability range and her involvement lent the production a great degree of gravitas. Besides Belle, the other highlight for me was the manic expressions and energetic execution by Yon Chantha, sister of the show's choreographer Yon Davy. She's certainly one to look out for in future shows.
Yon Chantha, all bulging eyes, big grin and energy levels that are impressive
The 6 performers take a bow at the end of Sunday's show
The beginning of the show in a shadow-puppet fashion

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Movin' weekend

Not sure why or how, but a new dance performance coming up this weekend, had managed to elude me until today. Especially as it includes my favourite Cambodian dancer, Belle (right), and some of the great young dancing talent the country is blessed with. Movin' is a contemporary meets classical piece that will be hosted by Sovanna Phum this coming Saturday and Sunday at 7.30pm. Tickets for barang cost $6, $2 for Khmers. With choreography by Yon Davy and the dancers themselves, under the direction of Bob Ruijzendaal, it's another step forward in the cycle of new works by the group known as New Cambodian Artists. Find out more here. Belle performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival earlier this month with Emmanuèle Phuon's piece, Khmeropedies II and will be in Singapore in late May. Then it's off to the United States in June to perform Khmeropedies I and II in New Haven and at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York, and back to Singapore in August. Joining Belle on stage for the Khmeropedies performance will be the absolute cream of Cambodia's dancers: Sam Sathya, Chey Chankethya and Phon Sopheap.
Tomorrow night, as I'm enjoying the luxury of a river cruise, the Children of the Bassac will present their final show at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, starting at 7pm and lasting an hour. Tickets are $18 from 012 650 229. They'll perform in eight separate sections of the show including classical Apsara and minority dances. Supported by Cambodian Living Arts, they hope this will lead to more regular performances beginning at the end of this year. This is definitely worth supporting, the dancers are extremely good and the cause is a great one too.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

In the ascendancy

Okay, so what was supposed to be an occasional series has taken on a life of its own but 'friends' deserve their place in the limelight, although this particular friend of mine, Belle, or Chumvan Sodhachivy or Abelle, as she's variously known, needs no introduction to the spotlight. Her incredible penchant for dance, of all forms and styles, has propelled her to the fore of the new wave of contemporary dance in Cambodia and her star is definitely in the ascendancy. There's no stopping her. I love this picture of her, taken by Anders Jiras during a performance of modern Cambodian theater and the story of Preah Kongkea. My appreciation to Anders for some superb photos of Cambodian dance which you can enjoy here. As for Belle, she'll be off to Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States over the next few months, showcasing her undoubted talents to international audiences far and wide.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dance on display

Belle enjoying her Wat Botum park appearance
The park in front of Wat Botum came alive with dance and dance fans tonight as La rue danse was played out on eight floodlit stages offering a wide range of contemporary dance, hip-hop, juggling, and much more besides. The audience was entertained by the 20+ performers who rotated across the stages in short ten minute bursts to ensure everyone got the chance to see their offering. Judging by the size of the crowds, the applause and murmurs of approval, the show, part of the Dansez Roam! series of events, was a major success. The best known of the performers was Belle and her dance partner Chy Rothana who performed two separate pieces and wowed the crowds with two entertaining contemporary dance sequences, not usually seen by Cambodian audiences. The audience also loved the monkey antics of Phon Sopheap and the younger element enjoyed the kids from Tiny Toones. But it was the variety on offer that made it such an enjoyable event for all.
Belle and her dance Chy Rothana partner perform a flemenco inspired piece as their 2nd offering
In her 1st piece, Belle offered up a robotic or mannequin style dance
One of the few moments that Belle and her partner paused for breath

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Street performance

Concluding the recent Dansez Roam! series of events by the CCF, the park surrounding Wat Botum will come alive this Sunday night (28th) from 6.30pm onwards, with over 20 performers, including Belle, who will have to battle for space with the keep-fit aerobic groups that inundate the park at that time. Under the banner of La rue danse, there will be eight dance areas dotted around the park where individuals and small groups of contemporary dancers, hip-hop and traditional performers will strut their stuff. The idea is to bring the dancers closer to the audience, with a projection screen also showing dance images by Anders Jiras. It will be an interesting experiment given that the sound systems that boom out the music which accompanies the keep-fit enthusiasts is usually loud enough to make your ears bleed. Bring ear-plugs. This afternoon (2.30pm), the Khmer Arts Ensemble are performing their very own Seasons of Migration classical dance story at Chaktomuk Theater, as part of the national performing arts festival that's taking place at the venue this week.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Solo work

Two upcoming dance events are well worth putting in your diary. This Sunday, 21st, at 7pm at Meta House, contemporary dancer Yon Davy will present her first choreography solo work, in the form of Action Wave, with two solos and two duets with dancers Yon Chantha and Choun Sovannary. Davy, who opened up the recent Suites shows at Chenla Theater, told me afterwards that she was looking forward to it, though with some trepidation as it's her first solo work, though she won't be dancing herself. A week later, Sunday 28th, also at 7pm, the Dansez Roam! events come to a conclusion at Wat Botum in the capital with a series of brief dance performances under the banner of La rue danse, with Belle headlining a total of 20 dancers. On the subject of Belle, I found this blog entry with photos by Nicolas Havette, taken last year during rehearsals with French dancer/choreographer Sébastien Ramirez. They're different to say the least.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Belle of the ball

Belle [courtesy of Anders Jiras]
She really is an exceptional talent. I know I've said it before but whenever she performs, she expands the realms of dance that no-one else in Cambodia is doing, can do, will do. I'm talking about Belle of course and her twenty minute self-choreographed solo to Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suite #2 at the Chenla Theater last night was an absolute barnstormer. From the opening seven minutes which she spent on the floor before getting to her feet, she had the audience in a trance, simply wondering what she would do next. The dramatic section which saw her blindfolded and cuffed as she symbolized the plight of Cambodia's past was simply stunning in its effect. Her fluidity of movement, her timing, her concentration, her expressiveness and her stamina are all key elements of every performance, and all were much in evidence last night. The evening's show was filmed by CTN and I must get a copy of the tape. I can't believe anyone else could've pulled off such a remarkable demonstration of contemporary dance allied to music that is nearly 300 years old. The first and third Bach Suites saw dancers of the quality of Vuth Chanmoly, Mom, Yon Davy and Phon Sopheap accompany the cello playing of Vincent Courtois in the opening piece, before Chey Chankethya led her vibrant team to a crescendo of movement and sound, aided and abetted by the musicians from Phare Ponleu Selpak. Wonderful entertainment, especially as a recital of classical music would usually leave me cold. The Khmers next to me in the three quarters-full theater expressed their delight at the dance but felt slightly disconnected with what the dancers were trying to represent and perhaps that's something that needs to be addressed before contemporary dance will be fully appreciated by a Cambodian audience. They understand the stories and meanings behind their own classical form of ballet, but contemporary is so new to them that it will take time to bed in and gain acceptance. But I need a similar explanation too, so we're all in the same boat. Kudos to Amrita and the French Cultural Center for hosting the performance under the Dansez Roam! banner of events. Though a few words of English would've gone down well in the opening presentation.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

The beat goes on

Sticking with the dance topic, this article by Tim Etchells appeared in the newspaper on Tuesday. Read on.

Cambodia's beat goes on - by Tim Etchells (
Can Cambodia begin to rebuild its shattered cultural heritage? Tim Etchells wonders if the answer lies with a team of Khmer dancers ... and a specially modified laptop.

I've recently returned from two weeks in Cambodia, travelling with 18 other artists, dancers, choreographers and performance-makers at the invitation of Ong Keng Sen's Flying Circus Project. Based in Singapore, Keng Sen's Theatre Works outfit has been running these exchanges – predominantly Asian in focus, but with routes out in all directions – for something like 10 years. The intention varies with each incarnation, but the broad hope is for a two-way artistic exchange between invited and local artists, and between the invited artists themselves. To call this latter group diverse would be an understatement: our trip saw passports from Indonesia, Slovenia, Turkey, South Africa, India, UK, Lebanon, Singapore, USA and Austria, among others, landing on the immigration desk in Phnom Penh.

Highly organised and efficient on one hand, Flying Circus also courts a creative openness that at times borders on chaos. The logic for Keng Sen is that the encounter must have its own energy, that the group itself must conjure something new from the situation. An approach like this takes time and nerve, but it undoubtedly pays off.

Looking back, it's hard to say what made the biggest impression on me. The country itself remains blighted by poverty, and still in recovery from the devastation of the Pol Pot era and subsequent years of civil war and instability. Culturally, there's a determined attempt to recover what the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out in its brutal five-year drive to Year Zero, which involved – alongside much else – killing intellectuals, artists, teachers and anyone who spoke French. For this reason, there's much talk of archives, of remembering and preserving. Around 300 feature films were made in Cambodia before 1975, of which as few as 30 now survive. They have been gathered in the last five years and preserved along with other film, sound and photographic materials at the Bophana archive in Phnom Penh, our base for half of the workshops.

The situation is equally dire in the performing arts, since only a handful of classical Khmer dancers survived the killing fields. These old masters are now a precious resource, teaching new generations techniques that otherwise would have slipped away for good. Back home in England, I generally run a mile from people attempting to rescue traditional forms; but in Cambodia, the initiative made more sense – the difference, perhaps, between a past that is dying from irrelevance or lack of interest, and one that has only recently survived assassination.

What I sensed in the younger artists and dancers we worked with, though, was a desire to move forwards with the past, and not to retreat into it. These Cambodian twentysomethings are savvy and hungry, and well aware that their country is opening up, and that internationally financed redevelopment and tourism have been following the inflow of NGOs. They know that they'll need new approaches in the arts, and new political voices to meet the challenges ahead.

I asked Keng Sen what he feared the most from his project. We talked about economic and political dangers (artists as the vanguard for property developers) and about the cultural dangers (Cambodians caught in retreading western postmodern art practice). Then we talked about the positives: the meetings, the collisions, the insistence on and the articulation of differences. There was one moment in the workshops that crystallised these possibilities for me. Tarek Atoui, Lebanese sound artist, ran a session with the Khmer participants that involved sounds collected by the dancers played out from a laptop and a complex array of homemade sensors, motion triggers and pressure pads. It was late in the afternoon when the dancers from Amrita Performing Arts, our hosts for half of the project, took to their feet and began to move in and around Atoui's machinery.

What happened was tentative at first, then suddenly too much. It was as if the dancers wanted to play the system, or make music with it, rather than dance with it. My heart sank. Then all at once they turned a corner and were dancing again – the turning wrists and fingers, lowered centres of gravity, eye contact, pantomime pauses and forward rolls all instantly recognisable from Khmer classical forms. They weren't dancing for the electronics, nor were they dancing with them exactly; they were dancing with and against them, entering and refusing, insisting on and moving through. There was tension in the dancing and music that afternoon, just as there should be on occasions of meeting. It was a privilege and an inspiration to be there. [end]

Today's Phnom Penh Post contains an article by Sarah Outhwaite on the Suites performances as part of Dansez Roam! this coming Friday and Saturday. I have reproduced sections of the article below:

The French musician and the Cambodian dancer work together in perfect tandem, playing their instruments of cello and body. Only when they stop for conversation does distance open between their perspectives on the duet. To the musician, classical heritage has been revered to the point of rigidity. To the dancer, having a classical heritage remains a fragile privilege. Dancer Belle Chumvan and cellist Vincent Courtois rehearse their duet, the centrepiece of this Friday's premier Suites at Chenla Theatre.... The show pairs Johann Sebastian Bach's cello suites with dancers for whom the music is entirely fresh... Performer Chumvan has choreographed an extended solo to the second cello suite. This encounter offers exciting possibilities but also reminds her of the delicate nature of her own sacred dance. "I feel the music is sad," Chumvan says. "I start thinking of all the teachers, singers and master artists who died because of Khmer Rouge. Always the experts." Chumvan is one of nine dancers developing personal interpretations of the Bach suites. A group of Amrita performers collaborates with Courtois on the first suite, and a different group choreographs for the third suite. In the final piece Courtois is joined by young musicians who play harmonies to his Bach cello on their traditional instruments.

Contemporary dance often privileges exploration in this way. Chumvan notes how confusing it can become. "Ten teachers give 10 different ideas," she says. "Not like classical with only one way." Chumvan continues to question what "contemporary" means and how strongly her spirit moves toward it. The very teachers she reveres in her Bach choreography have cautioned her against altering traditions so recently recovered. "The master says, you start to do something crazy? You want to kill classical?' says Chumvan. "But if we have something new, we have a new choice." Chumvan continues to ask hard questions as she develops her ideas and synchronicity with Courtois in preparation for the performance. While rehearsing with the cello, Chumvan's movements radiate from the core of Cambodian dance but extend beyond it with sensitive speed and lizard-like clarity. When young Cambodians tell Chumvan they want to emulate her contemporary style, she asks them, "Do you know Khmer dance? First, you should understand who you are." Hearing this, Courtois gives his own perspective. "You can forget your roots if you know them," he says, indicating his heart. For Chumvan, this point has not yet been reached. "Here, everything develops," she reminds us, "and like everything else, culture is still not really grown up."

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Birthday Belle

Belle, center, taking the plaudits at a previous Dansez Roam! performance
Happy birthday Belle, though as a gentleman, I couldn't possibly disclose her age. Cambodia's leading contemporary dancer celebrates her birthday today but has no time to relax as she's been in rehearsals preparing to perform this coming Friday and Saturday at the Chenla Theater as part of the Dansez Roam! series of events. This week will see the presentation of Suites, where seven Cambodian choreographers will interpret their impressions of the first three cello suites of JS Bach through their contemporary style. Belle has warned me to be prepared to see something very different from the norm. A French cello virtuoso, Vincent Courtois, will accompany the dancers live during the performances. They are at Chenla Theatre on 12th and 13th February, starting at 7pm. Tickets are available at the French Cultural Center and at Amrita's offices on Sothearos Boulevard.

This Saturday (13th) at 4pm, the Bophana Center (Street 200) will host a screening of The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, directed by Ong Keng Sen, in Khmer but with English subtitles. In 2002, The Asian Theatre Journal described The Continuum as:
‘a moving exploration of the ability of traditional art forms to speak to new realities. Continuum is part documentary and part experimental performance about Cambodia’s recent past and the process of four Cambodians using their art to come to terms with that past today....The Continuum weaves together stories of life and death under Pol Pot as told by three classical dancers and one shadow puppeteer with excerpts from the classical Cambodian dance repertoire, dance training exercises, shadow puppetry, evocative music by Japanese musician and composer Yen Chang, and documentary video by Noorlinah Mohd. The performance features the extraordinary artistry of master dancer Em Theay, her daughter Thong Kim Ann, principal dancer for the Royal Government of Cambodia Kim Bun Thom, and shadow puppeteer Mann Kosal.’

Yesterday Cambodia launched its Red List of Cambodian Antiquities at Risk at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, in a bid to assist museums, collectors, art dealers and law enforcement officials in recognizing objects that may've been looted and illicitly exported from Cambodia. You can read more about the Red List and download a copy at

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Friday, January 29, 2010

More dance for your delectation

Belle in the 2009 Dansez Roam! performance at Chenla Theatre
Dansez Roam! will hit the stage again next month. This is an on-going series of events produced by the French Cultural Center and Amrita that provides a platform for young contemporary Khmer dancers to express themselves, often in collaboration with foreign artists. It was last April that Belle took the Chenla Theatre audience by storm with her Hope of Tomorrow show and she'll be part of the forthcoming Suites (original music and choreographic piece based on the Bach Suites 1, 2, and 3) and La rue danse (small choreographic) performances, that are scheduled for Chenla and Wat Botum on 12/13th and 28 February respectively. It's not a one-woman performance though as the cream of Cambodia's artists will be joining her including Phon Sopheap, Chey Chankethya, Mom, Yon Davy, Vuth Chanmoly and many more. In March, Belle and the cast of Khmeropedies take their show to Hong Kong and Singapore and to the United States in June.

Tomorrow at Olympic Stadium will see the first matches in the Hun Sen Cup last 16 knockout stage with Phnom Penh Crown and Wat Phnom looking likely to succeed against lesser opponents. Games are at 2pm and 4pm and there are two more matches on Sunday, when BBU and Naga will progress. However, cup football has a way of bringing the big boys to their knees on occasions (just ask Man Utd), so fingers crossed we'll see some giant-killing. Though if PPCrown are losing, they'll probably walk off the pitch, as they did in last season's CPL third place play-off!

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Everybody was kung fu fighting

Belle in one of her kung fu poses, or is it a praying mantis?
Yesterday was a bit hectic, hence no posts, and I was still getting over my illness, which thankfully has cleared up now. I did pop out last night to watch two dance performances from Belle, and her young team, for a private company party. If you're not aware, Belle is Cambodia's leading contemporary dancer and is back in Phnom Penh after a few months abroad, in Europe and India. She's currently rehearsing for some home-based shows at the beginning of 2010 before she will be on the road again, taking one of her signature pieces to various countries, including a visit to New York. As I've said before she's a workaholic and literally never stops, but she also supplements her time with private appearances such as the one last night for the company Sabay. She performed two dances, with her male colleagues, the first was a kung fu martial arts dance (and no, she didn't use the music from Carl Douglas' record), the second a quirky, robotic dance that I've seen before. You can see from the photo below that the space they had to dance was about the size of a postage stamp, so far from ideal but she's a trooper and simply gets on with it. When the Phnom Penh performances are confirmed, I'll let you know.
Belle and her kung fu team
5 dancers on a stage as small as this, is no easy feat to perfrom. They had to share it with a motorbike and the musicians.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More exposure

Belle on the cover of the new Mekong Orchards packages
It doesn't take a genius to work out that my favourite dancer in Cambodia is Belle (or Chumvan Sodhachivy to give her Khmer name), the country's most celebrated contemporary dancer. She is pushing the edge of the envelope in dance in this country, breathing new life into old, fusing traditional classical dance with contemporary moves that she's been exposed to on her trips around the globe. She's currently in Europe for two months, working with choreographer Emmanuelle Phuon in Brussels and then completing an internship at the unique National Choreographic Center in Montpellier, France. Just before she left for Europe, she took time out of her busy schedule to take part in a new direction, as part of an advertising campaign for the new product of gourmet peanuts by Mekong Orchards. Here is the resultant advert that you'll see about town very soon.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Cultural calendar

Belle by Anders Jiras
Classical and contemporary dance are figuring heavily in the Phnom Penh's cultural calendar this month and next. Earlier this week I enjoyed the Cambodia-Japanese collaboration at Parkway under the banner of We're Gonna Go Dancing! and later tonight, the French Cultural Center begin their week-long Lakhaon Festival with nightly traditional performances at Chenla Theatre involving performances from Khmer Arts Ensemble, the School of Fine Arts and the Royal Ballet amongst others. The Khmer Arts Ensemble will hold an open rehearsal at their Takhmau headquarters tomorrow morning from 9am and will perform their work, Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala at 7pm on Friday 11 September. Next month, also at Chenla, will be the contemporary dance event, Dansez-Roam, on 16, 17, 24 & 25 October. One face who will not be taking part is Chumvan Sodhachivy, or Belle (pictured) as she's better known to all, who spent the first six months of this year as the associate artist with the French Cultural Center and has just returned from a workshop in Taiwan. In a couple of weeks, she will be off to Europe for two months, working with choreographer Emmanuelle Phuon in Brussels and then completing an internship at the unique National Choreographic Center in Montpellier, France. She simply never stops working.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Parkway success

Belle (in red) and her fellow Japanese performers take the audience applause at Parkway
The Parkway Center hosted its first dance show last night - We're Gonna Go Dancing!! - and judging by the long-lasting applause from the packed audience at its conclusion, it was a success. And rightly so as it featured the contemporary dance skills of Cambodia's leading performers including Belle (Chumvan Sodhachivy), Chey Chankethya and Vuth Chanmoly, perhaps better known for her classical repertoire and her part in Where Elephants Weep. The collaboration between Cambodia's finest and Japanese choreographer Takikio Iwabuchi, under the umbrella of Amrita Performing Arts and the Japan Contemporary Dance Network, gave the assembled throng two separate works and a dance time of 75 minutes. The opening work, with Yukari Ota and Keiichi Otsuka, was incredibly lively as the two performers threw themselves around the stage demonstrating their immaculate timing and cohesion, amidst what seemed to me a love story - but what do I know. The second work, involving 9 male and female Khmer dancers, was the result of a weeklong collaborative workshop with the choreographer, who gave his new students the opportunity to freely express themselves, as well as incorporating small elements of traditional dance. The piece was titled 'Hand, it withers when expanded' and included a variety of solo and group elements, as well as talking and singing sections too, a first for a contemporary dance piece here as far as I'm aware. I liked the inclusion and so did the audience. All in all a very enjoyable visit to Parkway and a big thumbs up to the collaboration which produced such entertaining work in such a small timeframe. Contemporary dance is still very new here in Cambodia and more shows like this, that exposes this accessible art form to everyone, will only serve to enhance its reputation.
Vuth Chanmoly and Belle (red) are presented with flowers
The 9 Khmer performers take their bow at the end of the show
The audience waiting in anticipation including my friends Sophal, Kathy and Sophoin

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Coming up next week

In September of last year I watched a new movie by the Khmer Mekong Films team called Heart Talk at Meta House. It was effectively a preview audience screening to get feedback on KMF's 2nd feature-length film. Next week, on Friday 4th September, the film will get its gala premiere at the Sorya Cinema, next to the Central Market, at 7.30pm, under the new name of Vanished. It's a suspense-thriller-murder story, starring Saray Sakana, one of the country's rising stars.
Also coming up soon will be a new performance by the star of Cambodia's contemporary dance scene, Belle (as seen on the cover of The Cambodia Daily), who will join with Japanese artists to present a performance at the Parkway Center, 2nd floor, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 1st September. Belle has just returned from Taiwan and will soon take off for a two-month sojourn to Europe to further expand her repertoire.
Next Friday, 4th September, will also mark the beginning of the Lakhaon Festival here in Phnom Penh, which'll last for 1 week and include revived and new performances of dance, poetry and spoken theatre by groups such as the Khmer Arts Ensemble, the School of Fine Arts and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. All performances will take place at the Chenla Theatre from 7pm from the 4th to the 11th, with the Khmer Arts Ensemble and their fertility dance-drama, Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala, taking place on Monday 7th. If it was up to me, I'd like to see at least five of the 8 shows but I think seats will be at a premium. The plays will be in Khmer with English and French subtitles to make them accessible to all.

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

At the very top

David Chandler and the author finally meet after 13 years of correspondence
Some days everything seems to go awry from the moment you open your eyes and then hey presto it all falls back into place with a whammy by the end of the day. Friday was one such day. The electricity and the back-up generator were off more than they were on at the office, making most of the working day pretty redundant. Eric de Vries had called to meet him at the Asia Motion photo exhibition taking place at Java Arts Cafe, as he was one of the exhibitors, and that's when things took a turn for the better. It was a veritable who's who of Phnom Penh but there were two people present who are at the very pinnacle of their respective professions. The foremost historian on Cambodian history, none other than David P Chandler, was in the house. As was the most talked about contemporary dancer that Cambodia has ever offered up, the adorable Belle, or Chumvan Sodhachivy as she's known to her mum, who accompanied her. First I must mention Dr Chandler. I have a book that he sent me in September 1996 - the Land & People of Cambodia - in response to a letter I sent him. We sporadically kept in contact via letter and email since that time, thirteen years ago, but tonight was the first occasion that we've actually met face to face. It was an honour, and he's as nice a guy as people have told me. Alongwith John Weeks, we went for a fine Italian meal at Luna d'autunno and it was just great fun and a real pleasure. I'm quite gobsmacked that I've finally met one of my personal 'heroes' and he lived up to expectations - often in the past that hasn't been the case. If you don't know who David P Chandler is, in connection with Cambodia, then shame on you. Look him up or view the comments section of this post to find out more.
Belle, Cambodia's No 1 dancer, with yours truly at the Java Cafe exhibition
The other star name at the photo exhibition was Cambodia's number one homegrown contemporary dancer, Belle, who was there with her mother, Nou Sondab, herself a star of stage and screen during the 1960s and 1970s. Belle has just completed her six month residency with the French Cultural Center and is now off to Taiwan to gain more experience, before a brief return and then a two month immersion into contemporary dance choreography in France and Belgium. She literally never stops to take a breath. To appreciate how good she is, you must see her perform. She has the classical background training of the top traditional dancers in Cambodia but she combines her exceptional talent with a fluidity of movement, interpretation and freedom that has not been seen in her country before. She is simply Cambodia's brightest hope in dance. And not only is she a beautiful young woman but also down to earth, her feet are firmly grounded and she knows what she wants to achieve, notwithstanding the recent furore about her performances and the celebrity status she has quickly acquired. David Chandler and Belle, both at the very top of their respective fields.
Belle and her mother Nou Sondab grace the Java Cafe exhibition

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Look at them

The highlight of my weekend by a country mile, with Belle at Sovanna Phum
A busy day again today with work as usual this morning, followed by a few hours at the Olympic Stadium watching Cambodia Premier League football and then this evening, a front row seat at the premiere of Look At Us Now, a well-attended contemporary dance performance at Sovanna Phum, looking at the struggles faced by dancers in today's Cambodia. The performers were Yon Davy, Khieu Sovannarith, Phumtheara Chenda, Sang Porsda, Va Chamnan, Yim Savann, Phon Sopheap, Kay Sokchan and well-known classical dancer Vuth Chanmoly, who also appeared in Where Elephants Weep recently. The play allowed the artists to express themselves in a variety of vigorous and imaginative ways on stage, though the dialogue was in Khmer so it was difficult for the majority of the Western audience to understand. Contemporary dance in Cambodia is certainly progressing at a rapid pace with this and other recent performances, usually including the star of the scene at the moment, Belle. She wasn't one of the performers in this show as she's been working as artist-in-residence with the French Cultural Center for the last five months, but she was there to lend her support to the dancers and working behind the scenes.
On stage action from Look At Us Now
Vuth Chanmoly provided the closing sequence to Look At Us Now
Looking as proud as punch, and rightly so
Some of the performers take their bow at the end of the dance

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Dancing for the King

Busy boy as I am, I met Ravynn Karet-Coxen and Nick Wood for breakfast at Java to find out more about the Nginn Karet Foundation that is providing help to 14 villages in the Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap with health, education, agriculture and a dance school, which was recently named the NKFC Conservatoire Preah Ream Bopha Devi. Over 2,500 families are getting direct help from the foundation, though its not all one way help, as the families have to meet criteria to earn the help on offer. The dance school has nearly 150 students and they have recently performed for the King in Phnom Penh and then held a sacred ceremony at the temple of Banteay Srei in honour of the King's birthday. You can read more about the Nginn Karet Foundation here and here. Brit Nick Wood is the founder of Navigator Films and he's been living in Cambodia for the last eight years, working on various film and television projects including the popular At The Factory Gates which has been a regular on Khmer tv about the plight of garment workers. Nick's current project is much further from home, in Columbia to be precise and focuses on the severe landmine problem that country is facing.

At lunchtime, I met up with Cristiano who was in town for the day and he told me he is nearing the end of his exhaustive exploration of Kompong Thom province. Over the last few years Cristiano has visited every ancient site in the province, well over 400, and has logged all of his findings, both big and small. It was with Cristiano that I made the trip to Phnom Chi just over a year ago. In a recent expedition into the countryside west of Kompong Thom, he uncovered an early brick temple, still standing, that is not recorded on any map or document. It was ten kilometres from the nearest village and in a very remote location, and his driver for this trip was another great friend of mine, Sokhom. Its another example of the secrets that still lie within the confines of Cambodia, waiting to be uncovered. Cristiano's temple searches in Kompong Thom will provide invaluable information about the province's cultural history - it's just a pity there is not a Cristiano in every province in this country.

Later this afternoon, a surprise visitor to my office was the young woman who seems to single-handedly carry the expectation of a nation on her graceful shoulders as far as the future of contemporary dance is concerned. Belle (Chumvan Sodhachivy) is a lady in demand, her name is rarely out of the newspapers and that's quite a heavy burden on a young Khmer woman in my view. For her part, Belle (pictured right) is focused on her art, she felt from an early age of her dance training that she wanted to express herself and to find new ways to do that outside the strict confines of traditional classical dance. With the support of her mother she has done exactly that, and is leading from the front as contemporary dance begins to take a foothold amongst the artistic community and audience in Phnom Penh. Working with the French Cultural Center for the last six months has broadened her horizons even further and she won't stop there. She is open to any artform, recently working with hip-hop artists for example, has plans to travel abroad to seek more influences and to incorporate those into her choreography in the future. Belle is on a mission to take dance to another level and with an incredible track record so far, I'll bet she will definitely succeed.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Breathing new life into dance

Belle, with flowers, and Chankethya take the plaudits from the audience
Contemporary dance, so popular in the West but practically unheard of in Cambodia, is beginning to make its mark slowly but surely, through the energy and vision of dancers like Belle (Chumvan Sodhachivy) and Chey Chankethya, who brought their new style of dance to the stage tonight at the Chenla Theatre in a performance titled Dansez Roam! With both dancers schooled in classical Khmer dance, they included elements of what they know best but much of the performance would've been the first time many Cambodians in the packed auditorium had seen such freedom and unrestrained movement on a stage before. Chankethya began the evening seemingly locked within a mosquito net before bursting out to glide and skip her way around the stage with three fellow dancers. They were followed by Hang Borin who used a chair to center his dance movements, all the while accompanied by both classical style and loud, westernised music. After a short break, the extraordinary Belle, who is carrying the banner of the new contemporary style almost single-handedly if you believe the press, almost brought the audience to its feet with her opening segment, again producing an array of dazzling movements and ingenious variations of the accepted norm. Joined by a group of her peers, they told the story of her mother's life under the Khmer Rouge, combining expressive dance moves, music, singing and story-telling all rolled into one. All in all, a fantastically successful show, leaving the Khmer audience with plenty of food for thought about what they had just witnessed.
A segment from the opening part of Dansez Roam!
Belle opens her half of the show by putting on her dress
Belle uses classical postures in her dance
The cast of Dansez Roam! take their bows

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