To perform up on stage in front of a mixed audience is surely a joy for every artist. But for the people at Epic Arts, to hear sounding applauses and cheers after every dance and theatre production is a source of tremendous pride and self-validation. The artists – who have different physical disabilities – have proven here and abroad that nothing, not even their impairments, can stop them from owning the spotlight. Agnes Alpuerto and Say Tola visit the Kampot-based Epic Arts Centre and witness the performing artists’ passion and struggles.
With a poised smile and a focused gaze, Tith Maly slowly moves her hand and feet Apsara-style. She looks intently at the dance teacher, closely following every step being taught. At 16, there’s a kind of confidence that emanates from her – the kind that would let anyone watching her dance know that swaying with the music is her thing. Except that she doesn’t hear a sound.
Tith Maly was born deaf.
But she moves as if she hears every beat of the sound playing from the stereo, bending her hand and raising her foot with utmost synchronisation to the music. It’s the vibrations on the floor, she says shyly using a sign language. “I listen to the vibrations and feel it and move according to it.”
Maly is just one of the students of the Epic Arts’ Inclusive Arts Course (IAC). Most of her classmates are deaf and physically disabled. One is partially blind. And though the dance steps require a little more time to execute and a sign language interpreter to relay the teacher’s instructions, the group seems oblivious of their individual impairments. They are performers – and they are studying their way towards being great ones.
The Inclusive Arts Course is a two-year full-time training given to students with and without disabilities. The training course, given at Epic Arts Centre in Kampot province, includes programmes in dance, theatre, art, film, music and literacy.
Now serving its third batch, the IAC currently has 13 students. Eleven of them are housed together in a residence financed by the Epic Arts. The course started in October last year, and the students are about to embark on their first ever public performance around Kampot and Kep.
“We have an inclusive art tour. These students, they are just learning. None of them have the experience of performing on stage before. Most of them joined us because they love arts. Some of them are here because they think they can’t be anywhere else because of their condition. They are here to gain skills, to do something they thought they can’t do. We will bring them to the community, to government schools where they can perform. It’s how they develop confidence,” says Ou Buntheng, the operations manager of Epic Arts.
Epic Arts is an international, inclusive arts organisation based in Kampot and registered as charity in the UK. The organisation was established in Cambodia in 2003.
Katie Goad, the organisation’s founder, arrived in Cambodia in 2003 with the hope of establishing a non-government organisation for disabled people. She discovered that were already a number of organisations and programmes being laid out for people in several cities and provinces, but none in the quiet southern province of Kampot.
Katie served as the first dance teacher of students with physical disabilities, gathering a handful of interested youths in Kampot for a bi-weekly workshop inside a small studio. But Epic Arts started to get attention as many young people joined the dance trainings. The number of participants grew, and the organisation became a solid fixture of the province.
From a two-story small building in the town centre, Epic Arts moved to a compound with three two-story buildings in Sangkat Kampong Kandal in 2009. It became the first fully accessible arts centre for disabled people in Southeast Asia.
As the years passed, several people have made Epic Arts their home. The centre continues to provide free art trainings for both disabled and non-disabled people in Kampot and neighbouring provinces – sticking to its main objective to “show that people with disabilities can do many things and they can do it on an equal level as those without disabilities. By learning together, the students will become advocates for a more inclusive society in the future.”
Epic Arts has also successfully created several other programmes such as Epic Encounters and Special Education.
Epic Encounters, formed in 2011, comprises talented performing artists with and without disabilities working collaboratively to create dance and theatre productions. The team now has seven members – four deaf, one with polio, two non-disabled.
“They practice every day. They do dance workshops and performances around Cambodia. The main idea of this group is to raise awareness on physical disability. Since they have different impairments, they need to have full coordination and unity. They memorise the dance moves and work together to create a beautiful performance,” shares Buntheng, as he watches the group rehearse inside the hall adjacent to where Maly’s group is practicing.
“They help each other. They look at each other to study the movements and feel the vibrations on the floor. This team has already done so much together so they know how to deal with each other. They have been to Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, India and UK – performing and learning contemporary dance together,” he adds.
Two other small rooms, beside a small, customised playground, hold small tables and chairs surrounded by colourful paper cut-outs and drawings. Buntheng shares that the rooms serve as learning venue for children and teenagers with special needs. Each room houses at least 10 students – depending on their age – where they learn how to count, draw, brush their teeth, cook or go to the bathroom. The classes transpire just three days a week, Tuesdays to Thursdays, with special tuktuk services that take students from and to their homes around Kampot.
“Here, the children learn simple life skills. With four teachers assisting them in the class, they are taught to be independent and be reliable on small responsibilities. We give them the opportunity to learn and connect with other children with the same special needs.”
Buntheng’s son, he shares, has Down syndrome. “This is how I got to know Epic Arts. I was an English teacher in a government school before. But when my first son was born, I developed a different perception about life. I came here with my child and watched him learn some skills. Soon after, I was offered a job as translator. And now, I am the operations manager of the organisation. My son, now 10, still attends the classes here and I saw his developments.”
Through the years, Epic Arts has given young people equal chances to show their art and propelled them to be stars on their own right. Perfomers have travelled across countries to show how they are fully accepting their physical limitations and focusing, instead, on what they can do.
Contemporary dancer Kim Socheat, for one, has made it through discriminations and feelings of isolation he endured for years before he came to Epic Arts. He enrolled himself in the art course and eventually became a regular staff after. He is now part of the Epic Encounters and has, for years, performed in front of thousands of Khmers and foreigners.
“At first, I didn’t really like to dance. I didn’t think I had the skills to do it, especially because I can’t walk,” he shares as he sits on his wheelchair. “I just used to crawl on the floor. Now, I dance and let people see my talent.”
Fresh from his team’s tour in Japan in June, the, 25-year-old Socheat is now busy preparing for his participation in Cambodia’s Got Talent Season 2.
“I already passed the first round. I don’t know when I will be shown on television but I am happy that people can watch me on TV. I hope I can reach the live performances round because I really want to show people that I can be as good as other dancers,” says Socheat.
Two other Epic Arts artists, Seoung Thoeun and Lay Not, also have a busy August. The duo, part of the Buffalo Boy project of the organisation, will be traveling to the UK to finalise their project and perform in front of the British crowd. Thoeun, a man with Cerebral palsy, and Not, with hearing impairment, had their first Buffalo Boy public performance at a packed CLA theatre late last month.
After their stint in the UK, the two artists will give their Cambodian audience the full production of Buffalo Boy, which follows the real-life story of Thoeun.
“We have so many activities for our artists. We’re performing everywhere to promote our advocacies, to promote these talented people who used to be discriminated. Instead of looking at the disabilities, we are giving our focus and energy on their abilities, on the things that they can do. We help them build not just confidence but their full potential,” explains Buntheng.
“In the future, we want to see a society that is more open, more understanding to other people’s conditions. We want to see less discriminations. We are also fervently hoping that more and more people will know how to deal with people with disabilities, and that we will understand and actively learn the sign language so we can all communicate and unite.”