Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
New Cambodian Artists

Modern dancers go toe-to-toe with Cambodian tradition (via the Christian Science Monitor)

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Performing a dance in red stilettos is not allowed at Angkor Archaeological Park, but that’s not stopping Khun Sreynoch from working on it.

As members of Cambodia’s first contemporary dance company, Ms. Sreynoch and her closest colleagues have known each other since they were children studying Cambodian classical dance, or Apsara. But in fusing old and new, the innovations of the New Cambodian Artists (NCA) have conflicted with traditionalists who want to protect Apsara from what they see as dilution.

“If I use high heels to perform Apsara moves [the conservatives] will say I’m destroying Cambodian culture,” says Sreynoch. “But I don’t think so. I’m developing it and making it fresher and more special.”

In 2016, NCA was banned from performing at the nearby Angkor UNESCO World Heritage site – which attracted about 2.5 million visitors last year – because their style was “not Cambodian enough” and their costumes were “too sexy,” according to Kong Soengva, another dancer.

Long Kosal, spokesman for the Apsara Authority, which manages the temple site, refused to comment on the case. “All performers are welcome to submit requests [to perform at the park] and we will decide if it is suitable or not,” he says by phone.

Tasked with protecting Cambodian culture, the Apsara Authority and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art decide which artists are certified to perform in public areas. “It’s difficult to find a balance between those who are very conservative, the modernists, and those in the middle,” says Hab Touch, director general of the Ministry. (Apsara is a name for a female heavenly spirit in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, as well as shorthand for the female classical dancers in Cambodia and the style of traditional dance they perform.)

“We want contemporary art but Cambodian contemporary art,” he says, sitting in front of several framed certificates from UNESCO that designate Apsara dance as part of the intangible culture of humanity. He adds that he is concerned about dancers importing Western styles and losing their roots.

That concern is perhaps heightened by the fact that Cambodia’s classical art was nearly destroyed forever during the Khmer Rouge years. In the late 1970s, the brutal regime targeted artists and killed almost all dance masters in the country.

 

Read the complete article by Nathan A Thompson on the Christian Science Monitor.

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