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When the Earth and Sky meet

Agnes Alpuerto / Khmer Times Share:
Dancers portraying ‘devas’ and ‘asuras’ fight over possession of ‘amrita’. Jean-Francois Perigois

Agnes Alpuerto goes on a magical journey through Cambodian mythology, rural traditions and village life.

It took months of planning, auditions, practices, costume-fittings and props-making before the show finally came together for a glorious, epic night for Cambodian culture.

As a drum beat echoed across the semi-open Cambodia Living Arts theatre at the National Museum grounds, performers came in sets to the well-lighted stage – giving the local and foreign spectators a show that represented the past and present of a Kingdom so rich of traditions and creativity.

But of course, it’s no wonder why the launching of the traditional dance show “Earth and Sky” last week started and ended undeniably triumphant. With the guidance of Cambodian Royal Ballet’s former prima ballerina, the show exhibited nothing less than real artistry and sensible enjoyment to its onlookers. The show was a creation of Voan Savay and the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) – a perfect partnership of a gifted persona and an organisation ever passionate to elevate local arts.

A male artist dances the Moni Mekhala. Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

Stories worth telling

Ms Savay, who serves as the artistic director of the project, and artistic advisor Prince Sisowath Tesso conceptualised the show with the CLA. The team aimed to develop a new story line where traditional dances, classical sound and ancestral traditions can be clearly depicted. After about two months of planning, the “Earth and Sky” was born.

The story starts with the Kingdom’s well-loved mythology – “Churning of the Ocean of Milk”. Male dancers, wearing masks that symbolise the ‘devas’ and the ‘asuras’, fight over the possession of amrita which soon after led to the creation of the Universe and the birth of celestial Apsara. The presence of the Apsara became a unifying force, ending the conflict between the two groups.

Different sets of artists emerged on the stage, changing the setting from the cosmic ocean of the myth to the rural life of present Cambodia. Performers, all bringing weaving, carpentry, fishing and other traditional tools, exhibited how the common people in the Kingdom live their daily lives. Some were weaving cloth, some were cooking on a big pan. At the side was a sculptor trying to make a replica of an ancient God, while on his back was a man hammering on the wood.

Soon after, the performers danced the Kour Angre, Moni Mekhala and Robam Nesat to celebrate life, pray for rain and show gratitude for the abundance of fish in the river. A short romantic scene was a total plus, sending the audience and even the artists themselves a little dose of giddiness.

‘Earth and Sky’ uses
traditional dance
movements to convey the stories of an ancient mythology and the lives
of Cambodians.
Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

The show ended with the Chhayam Drum dance, where all the performers gathered on the stage to celebrate joy and harmony.

Two boxers showed off the art of Bokator, the traditional Cambodian boxing, before everyone took a bow of pride.

Proof of Cambodian artistry

Apart from the relevance of the narrative of “Earth and Sky”, the artists’ precise movements, colourful props and exquisite costumes were worth the spotlight.

The seamless transitions of performances, artists going in and out of the lighted stage and the sound of nine traditional instruments – roneat ek, skor sampor, skor dai, and gong, among others – also greatly contributed to the artistic value of the entire show.

‘Earth and Sky’ show depicts the ordinary and simple lives of Cambodians in the rural areas.

Jean-Baptiste Phou, head of creative programs of CLA, said the artists auditioned in January this year. There were originally more than 70 applicants, but only 30 were picked – the cream of the crop, so to say. A total of 22 dancers, five musicians, two singers and one troupe leader underwent practices and trainings for two months under the supervision of Ms Savay and Prince Sisowath Tesso. They are also holding daily practices before going live on stage.

“Creating and hosting a show is a long and complicated process but the audience – both foreigners and Cambodians – showed positive response. We can see it by the smile on their faces when they leave the theatre and also by the enthusiastic comments on internet, making the Traditional Dance Show the number one cultural activity in Trip Advisor in Phnom Penh,” said Mr Phou, referring to more than a thousand good reviews the show has got on Trip Advisor – an international travel site.

The “Earth and Sky” will be performed six nights a week until March 2019. Next year, CLA plans to get the artists to use their creativity and come up with a new show they would conceptualise themselves, containing more contemporary elements and youthful vibes.

Chhoun Sarin, manager of experience at CLA, said the focus of the show is not much about increasing awareness of traditional arts.

Four ‘monkeys’ celebrate life in rural Cambodia. Photo: Jean-Francois Perigois

The traditional dance show and all other projects CLA initiates are aimed to provide audiences with captivating and enriching experiences of Cambodian arts and culture, while also uplifting employment opportunities for artists.

“Aside from the dance show, we also offer Living Arts Experiences – learning different art forms directly from the artists. We can also organise private performances, curated cultural trips for families and groups,” Mr Sarin added.

With the direction of Ms Savay, who has established a name for herself in ballet in the 1960s and is up to this time well-acclaimed and respected in her craft, and the CLA’s pursuit to bring out local talents into the centre stage, the traditional dance show is a solid and tangible proof that the Kingdom has a resilient and transcendent artistry that continues to bloom.

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