As girls, they learned to become dancers and now – as young women and accomplished dancers – they’re waiting for the licence to further thrill.
They’re the Khmer women dancers who make up the small contemporary dance troupe, New Cambodia Artists and, apart from an occasional single-purpose grant, they’re self-funded, keeping the show up and dancing with revenue from their once-a-week show in their small black-box theatre in Men’s Road, Siem Reap, pulling in between three and forty paying punters for each performance at ten bucks per head.
They’d like to broaden their audience appeal, spread the gospel about what their saying with their dance moves, and up their income by performing in public venues such as hotels.
Or even Angkor Wat Park, or the temples as they once did.
But they’ve been unable to do this because they’ve been blacklisted since 2016 when, despite becoming an association recognised by the Ministry of Arts and Culture, they were banned by the Apsara Authority from performing at Angkor Wat World Heritage sites because their style was not Cambodian enough, and because they didn’t wear traditional costumes that covered the shoulders or skirts that hung below their knees.
(And possibly – although no-one is saying it – because of the provocative take the women dancers impart through performance about the state of womanhood in the Kingdom.)
When word quickly spread about the blacklisting, hotels and other commercial venues also got cold feet about letting the girls dance.
“Hotels will not book them for fear of problems,” Bob Ruijzendaal, New Cambodia Artists founder and now artistic mentor, tells Good Times2.
But this could soon change, chimes in company director Srey Neang, taking Ruijzendaal by surprise.
She announces that she’s in negotiations with the new head at the Apsara Authority and from initial talks her hopes are high for a favourable resolution although she does not want to say too much at such a delicate stage in the talks.
If this deal comes through, self-reliance is almost guaranteed for the troupe and Ruijzendaal is elated.
But he also explains to Good Times2 that him being unaware of such negotiations proves that, while he founded the troupe, he’s handed over complete management to the women themselves, and is yet another example of an enterprise in Siem Reap founded and run by foreigners before being handed over to the workers and artists.
Ruijzendaal is a warm and endearing expat who back in his home country Holland founded a theatre in Amsterdam, directed plays and made two movies.
“The movie making couldn’t last,” he said, “Because I could not combine movies and theatre, so I opted for plays.
He first came to Cambodia in 2007 to run a workshop – and he kept coming back.
“But I hated Phnom Penh,” he says, “I didn’t like the noise and the smell, and then I met a couple of dancers who asked me to produce something so I stayed.
“And then I came to Siem Reap with the guys from Bambu Stage and here I am now.”
Starting in 2011, the New Cambodian Artists troupe came together with the help of stirring performances at temples and hotels , including a much-applauded rooftop performance at the upmarket Amansara Resort, with the dancers dressed in costumes designed by chic Siem Reap-based fashionista, Eric Raisina.
Later, the troupe found a small permanent performing space, and honed their art, with dancers also focusing on empowering women by covering touchy issues such as domestic violence in their performances.
“We talk about issues but we never lose the artistic values,” says Srey Noch, dancer and company spokesperson.
“We never do pamphlets,” adds Ruijzendaal, “We just do energy and through provoking art.”
One powerful work came together in 2016 when Ellen Steinmuller, a German dance artist and dance movement psychotherapist, undertook a three month residency with the dancers, producing a piece titled Kom Lang Satrey (Power Women), which premiered in Phnom Penh at the Institut Français Culturel as part of the Dignity Project 2016.
Another thought-provoking work is about traditional marriage, challenging the tradition of subservience and obedience outlined in the Chbab Srey (Women’s Law).
Srey Noch enthusiastically points out that while she’s of traditional marrying age, she’s definitely not on the marriage market.
“I have no boyfriend,” she says, “I’m muscular because of my dancing and many young men think that I am too strong, not only in my body, but also in my thinking because I can’t follow instructions.”
The wedding work begins with a reading from the Chbab Srey,
“We read from that,” says Srey Noch, “And note how big an influence that book still has today.
“We then begin with what is seen as a happy wedding and how weird it really is because in our culture women between the ages of 18–22 all pretend to be happy when they marry.
“But after the beautiful and happy wedding day comes the rules – after the marriage you have to follow all the rules.”
The work ends with the women dancers powerfully challenging subservience with their romping stomping version of the New Zealand Haka, a Maori cultural dance or challenge.
“We’ve had some complaints about that,” Srey Noch says, “But also some women were inspired by the performance, which is a message to Cambodian women.”
The troupe has also had a request from a Singapore dance theatre to do a piece about wedding rituals in Southeast Asia.
“It’s a plan,” says Srey Noch.
Hopefully it’s a plan that comes off and helps garner the dancers more regional recognition. And hopefully it will come through in Siem Reap so they will be able to perform in the temples and hotels, building their recognition in their own country instead of being blacklisted.