Four solitary figures glide across the stage with careful steps and measured paces. Slowly, the dancers raise their arms, their hands slipping into the traditional kbach gesture characteristic of classical Khmer dance. Yet as their bodies move with the mournful tunes of a cello piece, it becomes clear that the style of the dance is predominantly contemporary.
It is this distinctive and visually striking balance between modernity and tradition that captivates the viewer and distinguishes the style of the New Cambodian Artists.
Based in Siem Reap, the all-female troupe of four Cambodian contemporary dancers, Sorn Sreynith, 22; Khon Sreynuch, 21; Kong Seng Va, 19; and Ny Lai, 21, was formed in 2015 under the direction of Khon Sreyneang, 26, with the aim of developing Cambodian contemporary dance while at the same time promoting female empowerment.
Their show this evening, Water Music/Without Sinking is a commentary on the effects of climate change, and an exploration of the human relationship with earth, as directed by Dutchman Bob Ruijzendaal.
The group was first inspired to choreograph a dance piece about the environment during a workshop with their costume designer eight months ago.
The dancers designed and created jewellery out of garbage they had collected, which began a discussion about environmental issues and the need to raise awareness.
In two parts, the performance first depicts the rising sea levels and their impact on human populations. Characterised by calculated but chaotic movements signifying travel and migration across the earth to escape flood, it is inspired by an excerpt from Here Comes the Flood by Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp.
“People will be migrating more, because if the sea keeps rising the way it does, many cities including Phnom Penh will become flooded. That’s what’s happening to the earth right now; that is the contemplation we are actually having – okay, the earth is drowning [and] we want people to think about it,” Ruijzendaal says.
Company Director Srey-neang hopes the dance will inspire thought and invoke change among Cambodians, given the environmental problems that arise during every special occasion like Khmer New Year and Water Festival when garbage, especially plastic, is dumped into the river.
The song Human by Iranian-Dutch singer Sevdaliza provided the artistic inspiration for the second part of the dance, which consists of three duets choreographed by the dancers themselves, expressing the struggle of being human.
“It is fighting, it is loving, it is trying to survive in this life, while at the same time the water is running after us,” Ruijzendaal says.
Despite telling a global story, these duets are also deeply personal, portraying tales of the dancers’ relationships with each other and the challenges they face individually and collectively as young, and female, dancers in Cambodia.
Each of the three duets shows a different power dynamic in the relationships between the dancers. As they guide and direct each other, they also inflict pain, all the while being dependent on their partner to pull off more complicated movements. It is a power play between two individuals, expressing the love and pain in their relationship as they support each other as friends and fellow dancers.
“That is also a little bit like what happens to people in any kind of relationship. You help each other, you hurt each other in doing it. You’re annoyed, you’re irritated, you don’t want it but you do it,” Ruijzendaal says.
It is also an expression of the frustrations they have to live with as young female contemporary dancers in a conservative society where what they are doing receives very little social support.
“To be a contemporary dancer in this country is really too hard, because you don’t get much support from the social environment . . . They say, ‘You are dancing girls, you are not good, you are not pure, you are slut. You are crazy,’” Sreynuch says.
In addition to conservative attitudes towards women, the dancers also have to deal with authorities’ and Cambodian society’s aversion towards contemporary dance.
“In Siem Reap, the people around me don’t know what is classical, what is contemporary, what is art . . . We do something really Cambodian, but they say it is not Cambodian, so it is really painful. Foreigners say it is really Cambodian, but locals say, ‘No, it is not Cambodian,’” says Seng Va.
The dance troupe had previously faced problems getting certification from the Ministry of Arts and Culture for contemporary dance and were only issued a certificate after a year of lobbying.
Despite the four dancers having been trained in classical Khmer dance, Sreynuch says they are often told that they “destroy the culture”.
“I want them to accept something new, because new is not always bad … because we can improve our dance, our art, our culture,” says Sreynuch.
Regardless of the criticism, they still hope to inspire environmental and social change through their dance.
“I hope the audience understands what we are doing, [and] what happens when people do bad for the earth … [In] the end I hope that the audience can see how strong we are,” Seng Va says.
Water Music/Without Sinking will be performed at 6:30pm tonight at the French Institute. Tickets are available at the reception desk for $10, or $5 for students and those under 18.