Cambodia: My explorations in dance and music

I am coming to the end of my month in Cambodia, and I have had the most amazing, productive time. So I just want to try and note down a few observations to try and order some of my ideas. Then I just have to develop them and add the detail for some papers…..

This was a new project for me – not to shift my focus away from the UK and US agendas I have been pursuing, but to add a new string to my bow. I hope that, when I get more money, I can actually reconnect some work on Cambodian theatre in America to performance in Cambodia. In fact, productions like Where Elephants Weep, Catherine Filioux’s play Eyes of the Heart, Henry Ong’s Sweet Karma, the Geffen’s production of Extraordinary Chambers, Michael Golamco’s Year Zero, all touch upon Cambodian refugees, migration and the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge.

This is a common narrative and it is an unsurprising one, especially as much of the Cambodian American community migrated during an era of political upheaval. I was, of course, interested in this history too, with how it had affected the arts and how artists are addressing its legacies in a post-conflict society. The government here has had an incredibly strong focus on reconstructing and preserving the arts, some might say in the past they have implemented this agenda in a heavy handed way to indirectly create censorship. And this is what so much of the writing on Cambodian dance is about. Not always, but often. My own project was set up to challenge a binary narrative I felt was prominent in much writing on contemporary Cambodian dance and performance: national preservation/adaptation vs contemporary change wrought by transnational/external forces.

What I found was something slightly different. Artists here are working in that legacy, they sometimes create works that directly, or indirectly address war and conflict, but most often, I found people talking about shifting the perception of Cambodia through the arts. That is to say, using the arts to give the message that Cambodia isn’t all poverty and Pol Pot. There is an emerging generation of young, middle class Cambodians who arts organisations are trying to attract as audiences, and a generation of artists who are classically trained but who want to explore new dance vocabularies. Indeed when you talk about ‘contemporary Cambodian dance’ this is so varied in its forms, in its practices and ideas. There are artists trained and working in classical dance but using the form to express different sensibilities, telling old stories in new ways that relate to society, to artists trained classically but going abroad on workshops and for training in western dance, and then using the movement or ideas to explore the boundaries of the classical form. If there are multiple ways of being intercultural or hybrid, then Cambodian dance illustrates it.

And yet, very little of this innovation comes directly from the government. With the new Minister for Culture and the Arts, people seem generally optimistic that the government is trying to understand and embrace what contemporary dance in Cambodia might be, or what it might look like as part of a new national project. Cambodia is developing its first National Policy for Culture and the Arts, but this is largely supported and promoted by an independent sector, one fostered by NGOs. Lack of money and the emphasis on preservation, alongside a seemingly closed political circle has meant that the arts – particularly exploring contemporary arts or using classical arts in a contemporary way – has not been a government priority. For many years, the arts sector has been dependent on NGO companies who have led all manner of creative activity, but with a global economic recession, many have had to shift their operations owing to a loss of funding and support from abroad, particularly the U.S. So they are searching for new routes to make the arts economically viable – whether helping embassies, creating traditional works for the tourist market, seeking private sponsorship, creating a sideline business – often a café or galley – that will provide regular income, or trying to tap Cambodia’s emerging young consumer market.

There is, therefore, a current emphasis on making the arts economically sustainable, as well as a long-standing project of national cultural preservation. Yet simultaneously there is a young generation of artists who want to explore, want to be artists whilst holding on to that heritage. The interesting thing is that once you have trained at RUFA you are professional but you are effectively a civil servant, a government employee. This means that many artists teach at government schools for part of the day; very few are utterly independent in the way we imagine in the UK. There are, of course, exceptions, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s Ensemble being one of them. Although many have jobs, those jobs are teaching the next generation of artists, or teaching/performing privately – of course there are artists who want to move away from this model. Nevertheless, without organisations like Cambodian Living Arts, Amrita, the French Institut, Sophiline Ensemble, there would be few opportunities to practice or develop arts independently. I also wonder if this will be stymied by a particular understanding of professional as simply ‘someone who has trained at RUFA’. The Royal University of Fine Arts is the only professionally accredited university by the state (there is also the Secondary School of Arts and the Ministry’s Department of Performing Arts) and whilst it is a marker of quality and knowledge, there seems to be many other elements of professionalism and practice missing. To be a professional artist also means you can pursue independently, create an affordable living in so doing, and behave with a certain code. Very few performers I met understood that broader picture and therefore the idea of an artistic career was lacking – though I also noted a shift towards developing new works and becoming a choreographer not just as a way of exploring dance, or Khmer identity, but as a way of being financially secure as one’s dance career receded with age. Only artists inside NGO organisations have that mindset, and NGOs themselves are trying to inculcate such ideas in society and the government more widely. But artists are strongly tiered as inside/outside the RUFA loop, and inside/outside the NGO loop. However, for many contemporary professional artists the duality of their artistic lives is also stark, especially as classical dance has a strict vocabulary that is rigidly adhered to in schools and universities. Contemporary dance is not taught anywhere and is still a divisive topic especially at the higher levels, and is something only pursued outside government settings.

Cambodia also faces a bigger challenge of making the arts reach a wider audience, especially beyond expat communities and elites, though companies often sell cheaper tickets that compare with the price of cinema for young people. Simultaneously, few artists talk about politics – unsurprising given their status in relation to the Ministry, and many do not have that vocabulary because political science isn’t always taught at school. Indeed, it seemed to me at times that there was a culture of self-censorship, of not being happy but expressing it between the lines, indirectly. Again, in a country where one NGO dance school was regularly closed for 6 months owing to political protests around the election in 2013, where rights are often abused and local people disenfranchised through corruption, land grabs and a lack of transparency and accountability, it is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising when artists have a specific history of destruction, as one survivor of the Khmer Rouge said to me ‘artists will always be killed here, it just depends who is in power.’

And yet, these artists seem to create the most amazing works, often it feels, against the odds of a global economic recession, a sceptical but trying Ministry that lacks resources or funding to support the arts fully, a government whose priorities lie elsewhere in a developing world country that is incredibly polarised in terms of wealth/class and therefore education and healthcare, and a culture infused increasingly with K-Pop and MTV. Yet their pervasive sense of responsibility to the past and their dedication and desire to use the arts for a better future really shines through.