Cambodia’s rich performing arts are brought to life on stage through Plae Pakaa, a show that highlights the country’s artistic heritage.
Words: Chitra S Photography: Adam Lee
In an upstairs classroom of a Phnom Penh primary school, dance class is in session. I hear the students first – a chorus of bare feet hitting the cement floor in unison to beats drummed up by their teacher on his skor dai (traditional Khmer drum) – before seeing them. It’s 8.00am on a Sunday morning and these children are learning the basics of Cambodian dance. Classical Cambodian dance is notorious for its range of gestures and stances, some 4,200 to be exact!
I watch in amazement as the children – a few only kindergarten-aged – exhibit a focus that belies their age, unfazed by the guests who are busy snapping photos of their every move. Run by Cambodian Living Arts, a nonprofit organisation whose mission is to create a sustainable environment where local arts can empower and transform individuals and communities, the class I witnessed seemed to be heading in the right direction.
Resurrecting the Arts
Founded in 1998 by genocide survivor Arn Chorn-Pond, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) aims to preserve the rich heritage of Cambodia. Only a boy during the Khmer Rouge years (1975-1979), Chorn-Pond survived by using the musical skills taught to him by fellow camp internees to play propaganda tunes for the regime’s soldiers. A harrowing time for Cambodians, the period claimed the lives of over a quarter of the country’s population and, it is said that 90 percent of those who lost their lives were artists. Chorn-Pond – the only surviving member of his family – escaped to a Thai refugee camp where he was later adopted by an American pastor.
In his adopted home of Lowell, Massachusetts, where a large number of Cambodian refugees had settled, the young man built a sound studio for children – many of whom were involved in street gangs – to record their voices and learn about their roots. Eager to explore his own roots and culture, Chorn-Pond returned to Cambodia and began tracking down surviving artists. It wasn’t an easy undertaking as many of the artists had fallen into difficult times, but Chorn-Pond persevered. He began by locating these artists and later, organising classes within their communities as a means of passing down the knowledge of the old masters to the younger generation.
Coming to Fruition
All that hard work and dedication are starting to pay off and the CLA now has its own traditional performing arts show: Plae Pakaa, which literally means ‘Fruitful’ – a nod to the fruits of the organisation’s labours. Ros Rotanak, CLA’s bubbly programme manager offers some insight into Plae Pakaa. “For us, Plae Pakaa expresses the idea of our work coming to fruition. It is symbolic not only of the emerging artists who are sharing the fruits of their hard work with us, but of the revival of traditional arts in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge.” In its second season at Phnom Penh’s National Museum, Plae Pakaa presents three shows: Children of Bassac – a medley of classical and folk dances so-named in honour of its performers who hail from the city’s Bassac slums, Lakhaon Yike – a traditional opera and, Passage of Life – a fusion piece that charts traditional Cambodian ceremonies from birth to death. The most popular of the three shows – Children of Bassac – features the classical dance of the apsara or celestial nymph, as well as lesser known folk dances of Cambodia’s minority communities. “Many foreigners want to see the apsara. The dance is incorporated into the show but more importantly, we also want people to know that there is more to Cambodian performing arts than apsara alone. Yike (pronounced yee-kay), for instance, is lesser known but is believed to date back to the eighth century,” she shares with me. To learn about what goes into each performance and to better understand the CLA’s work, Ros suggests I attend its Sunday classes and that is how I end up at CLA’s Phnom Penh office.