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Extending the Frontiers of Cambodian Performing Arts through Contemporary Dance — the Challenge of Amrita Performing Arts

Interview / Asia Hundreds

From Tradition to Contemporaneity - the Path to Understanding

Yamaguchi: Can traditional dance artists adjust themselves to contemporary dance so quickly?

KR: It is not very easy for artists to achieve contemporary expression. For example, in the process of the collaboration, Pichet asked a performer to take off his shirt and dance. He didn't accept. Since he was educated in traditional dance, it was hard for him to take off the shirt. He didn't take it off, but Pichet's work was completed without a problem, and it was great. Each dancer wore a costume.
The dancer, a year later, took part in Surabaya Young Choreographers Workshop in Indonesia. A number of young artists, teachers and facilitators were there; they were given instructions and had showings. He was very nervous, but brought a monkey mask for traditional dance that he used in his childhood. He had lost it, and found it again five or ten years later. It was a very important mask for him as an artist, and he created a new piece there about the mask. The piece was selected as one of the three outstanding works, and was presented in Jakarta. We were happy to have dispatched him from Cambodia.
Surprisingly, in this piece, he took off his clothes and painted his face and body, though he had refused to take off his shirt a year ago.
In the year he had witnessed many things; he took part in a tour with Pichet and went out of Cambodia. I mean, his spirit and body absorbed many things by having contact with the outside, and he got new ideas by exchanging with various young dancers and deepening his thought in his contemporary initiatives.

Process of International Collaboration

Yamaguchi: Did you continue collaborating with foreign choreographers after the work with Pichet?

KR: We did continue to invite directors and choreographers from abroad and have workshops. It is important to know if the artist really wants to work with Cambodian artists, because Cambodian artists are not familiar with so-called contemporary creation. You need very long dialogues to do that, which takes a year or 18 months. Fred took part in IETM (International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts) and TPAM (Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama, at that time Tokyo Performing Arts Market), met various people, had a lot of conversations, brought back what he learned, and considered it. He repeated this again and again.
We invited choreographers who were willing to carefully train young Cambodian artists and help them find their own voices. In other words, they didn't merely use the artists as tools for their creation but they tremendously exchange artistic input in the creative process. To do that, they accumulated dialogues with the artists until they find their own voices and ideas. It is not easy to find people who can do that.
You know Arco Renz, the choreographer based in Belgium. He has visited Cambodia many times. He stayed for one or two weeks again and again and spent a lot of time in total. Eko Supriyanto from Indonesia also stayed for a week a few times, had a lot of dialogues every time, and then decided to create a work with us. In CRACK by Arco Renz, Tang Fu Kuen from Singapore took part as dramaturge, and he took the same process. CRACK was presented in Belgium, and then was invited to Groningen in the Netherlands, Berlin, and Theater Spektakel in Zürich.

Yamaguchi: CRACK won the prize at the festival.

KR: Yes. It won the ZKB Patronage Prize in 2012. I think that spoke for the international recognition not only of the value of the work but also the potential of young Cambodian artists.
Amrita's first stage was about focusing on local, traditional works. The second stage was about pursuing contemporary creation through international collaboration. Amrita is at the third stage now. I don't mean we completed the second stage, but a new phase has been added. Through working on those international collaborations for years, the young artists have gained various skills, and are moving into a new domain where they would work on their own creation.
I became Executive Director in September 2013, and launched a Contemporary Dance Platform. We commissioned three artists to create a work, and offered an environment where they would be able to take six weeks to create. They select performers and conceptualize their works.
They create small-scale works, and show them at a small 200-seat theatre. It can be said to be a showcase, where they also converse with audience about the works. We as producers discuss with them in the process of creation, and we also invite Southeast Asian dance practitioners and specialists to discuss with them. This allows the artists to explore further in their own works and choreographic inspirations. For the Cambodian artists, this means a journey into the world of choreography.

A Photograph of stage
Bach Cello Suites (part of the Contemporary Dance Platform)
choreographer: Belle (Sodachivy Chumvan) and Nam Narim (c) Anders Jiras

Yamaguchi: The program must be a good opportunity for them.

KR: Yes. We have organized it three times. We do it twice a year, in May and November. It wasn't easy in the beginning, and we have learnt so much from it. We can have a trial and error process, and the feedbacks cultivate young artists' choreographic potential. Through the semiannual platform, international collaboration and workshop, the dancers, who are well-trained masters in traditional dance, enter the world of contemporary dance and try to create their own pieces. The platform also synchronizes with international collaboration projects. The platform is held in May and November, and in other periods international collaboration projects and workshops are conducted. Everything is for nurturing the artists. Do you know Lim How Ngean?

Yamaguchi: The Malaysian dramaturge, who has worked on Asian performing arts collaborations for more than 20 years?

KR: Right. He stayed in Cambodia for three weeks and held a master class of dramaturgy. He knows and understands the situation of Cambodia very well. He is going to produce a collaboration between Cambodian, Malaysian and Japanese artists.

Difficulty in International Collaboration

Yamaguchi: That is wonderful. By the way, do you sometimes find difficulty in international collaboration?

KR: For example, Arco Renz is from Germany and based in Belgium, and he is a very special person. He is a choreographer of extensive knowledge and has sincere and keen interest in Asia. He has stayed in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia to create.
There are quite a lot of people who want to create in Asia, but most of them just stay for a short period, do some workshops and go home. It's good to get to know each other this way, but you can't really expect that something will be born from that. Very few people fit in well to the local life and exchange with local people like Arco does.
Arco rides a motorbike as the locals do in Phnom Penn and thoroughly explores the city on foot. He takes a very long process to understand people living in the country and is very enthusiastic about visiting Cambodia to meet artists. He shares daily life with artists and goes to exhibitions and performances together with them.
However, it was not easy for Cambodian dancers to create with Arco even with the time-consuming efforts he made that way.

Yamaguchi: I can kind of imagine.

KR: Cambodian artists were to confront something totally new to them, namely Arco's style and way of thinking. They were to create their physical movements using it. They needed techniques for that. It was a long journey for them, and it was also a challenge for Arco in that he was expected to draw the best results from them. Arco profoundly committed himself to that, and I think he drew the best.

Yamaguchi: When there was difficulty, was it you who took care of it?

KR: Fred used to do it, and after that I did it. Actually we appointed Chey Chankethya as the first artistic director of Amrita in August 2014. She was one of the artists who worked with Amrita. She received the Fulbright scholarship and a grant from ACC to obtain an MFA in contemporary dance choreography, and came back. She facilitates international collaboration projects. In the platform, she asks critical questions to artists to stimulate them into inspirations and thoughts, which makes the six-week creation process richer.

Yamaguchi: Then are you going to focus on management?

KR: I am going to work on management, fundraising and touring plans. Honestly speaking, I haven't realized a tour yet. I have been in this position for a year, and I need to broaden network. In this sense too, I am very happy that I took part in TPAM again. When I took part in TPAM for the first time, three years ago, I saw performances but didn't really know what else to do. I knew very few people and didn't know how to connect to whom. This time I have a clearer awareness of purpose. I want to see as many performances as possible, especially ones by Pichet, Eisa Jocson from the Philippines and other Asian artists, and try to get to know people. It would be perfect if I can organize and produce the dance platform twice, international collaboration twice, a new piece by the new artistic director and two tours in a year.