My days in Phnom Penh were busy enough and the activities undertaken quite varied: historical places, a cooking class, a couple of hotel reviews, a treatment at a spa and more. I was determined to miss out on the attractions heavy on Cambodia’s brutal history, which give little impression of the country’s rich heritage. What I needed to complete this adventure was… art. And art I found in the form of a leaflet at the hotel desk that read “Phom Penh’s top ranked cultural performance”. That was it, I thought: I searched for their website, found it and emailed the booking department asking for a ticket to see the play “Children of Bassac” by Cambodian Living Arts. I was lucky to be in town on a Friday, the only day this play is on at the National Museum, and it was also the first representation of the season.
The location and stage of the show were simple but stunning, an open air concept that added to the feeling and aura of the performances. The moon was shining brightly when I reached the stage following a lantern-lit path. The small and magic outdoor amphitheater in the grounds of the National Museum was the immediate highlight of the show to come. I accommodated myself in the first row and took advantage for a chat with Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) communications manager, whom informed me that the audience numbers, formed predominantly by tourists, have been growing from year to year. So how did people mainly get to know about these shows, I wondered? Like me, some see the advertising on tuk-tuks or from street press, others are approached by enthusiastic young people out the front of the museum itself. Marketing has been an important part of Cambodian Living Arts success, and it is a meaningful success: in the absence of a national opera company, the only job opportunities open for young traditional arts performers is right here!
CAMBODIAN LIVING ART
Initiatives like Children of Bassac are sponsored by non-profit organization Cambodian Living Arts, an organization dedicated to the transformation of Cambodia through the arts. Cambodian Living Arts productions cover folk and classical dance, village rituals and harvest celebrations. Each performance showcases a wide range of traditional performing arts.
It is so important that these art forms are being preserved and saved for posterity through the employment of over 120 performers, most coming from financially difficult suburbs of the city. These young artists are being taught by surviving master artists who are willing to pass on their skills to young students, skills including Apsara dancing, difficult-to-master musical instruments, costume crafting and choreography. These emerging artists are being empowered through their development and through a viable income achieved after years of studying to perfect their crafts. What a great and noble cause.
If I had thought Children of Bassac was all about Apsara dancing, I was to be proven wrong: the spellbinding performance offered the audience the chance to discover the diversity of Cambodian culture and traditional arts through a combination of traditional dances from different eras and ethnic groups. The young artists wore brightly coloured outfits and made us travel through a variety of dances by the regions, celebrating the history of Cambodia.
Each dance lasted no more than 10 minutes and displayed technical, playful and folk-style skills. The artists employed graceful dancing, enchanting music and plenty of energy, a dynamic performance that captured the whole audience. The distinguished show included dances based upon the Ramayana Indian myth interpreted through Cambodian lore, like the much-loved monkey dance, as well as Cambodian folk tales: a buffalo blessing from the Phnong tribe of Ratanakiri, a lively fishing dance in which fish are not the only catch, the Cambodian scarf kroma dance, and finally a captivating and well-expected Apsara dance. There was a screen onto where a projector gave brief explanation on the types and meanings of the dances performed, including some subtitles in English during the theater. The highlight was indeed the amazingly coloured costumes and most importantly the skilled dancers.
THE EMERGING ARTISTS
I must admit I totally fell in love with the gracefulness of the professional dancers, so passionate and entertaining that you could tell the audience had a great time watching them dance, act, sing and play instruments on stage. These talented and enthusiastic young performers take years of practice to perform such technical yet compelling dances that drew the audience in and wrap them up in their show with perfectly placed movements that require an enviable amount of strength and grace.
In each of the performers I saw such a passion about their work, and such a talent as actors, actresses, dancers and musicians displayed an excellent standard of professionalism. The quality of the performances and of the dancers’ beauty, sheer strength and physical control were a perfect match to the gorgeous costumes made with traditional brocaded and silk fabrics. I felt so heavily engrossed in the show that at some point my eyes teared up a little.
I have been to cultural shows in other countries in the past, but this felt like a genuine experience. I was so glad to be in Phnom Penh on the right evening and to be invited to this amazing evening of entertainment. Just over one hour of show makes it for the perfect evening, recommended to anyone who is looking for a high quality traditional dance. If you are after a real cultural experience while in Phnom Penh, do not hesitate to go to one of Cambodian Living Arts shows at the National Museum.
The 80 minute performances are of great value at $15 at the door, offering a gorgeous snippet of the history and myth of Cambodia. Tickets can be purchased online through email@example.com Your patronage goes directly back into the program, which provides well-paid work for over 100 artists, as well as covering production costs. Your participation enhances Cambodian Living Arts mission to transform and revitalize Cambodia through creative expressions.
If you are on a budget and think this price is steep for your wallet, be aware that Cambodian Living Arts has a number of experiences that fit a backpackers budget, like an Observation Tour – starting at $5 – which allows you to see artists rehearse and train. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and details.
Don’t miss the opportunity to give them your support when you are in Phnom Penh. Cambodian Living Arts are doing a great job and it is lovely to see that culture is being targeted once more as something worth protecting and nurturing. Best wishes to the whole team and keep up the fantastic job!
Cambodian Living Arts
St.13 corner of St.178 – National Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
SEATING: about 100
PRICE: $15 – discount for groups
SHOWS: Season from June to August, every Friday, Saturday and Sunday
‘Children of Bassac – Traditional Khmer Dance’
‘Mak Therng – musical theatre’
‘The Spirit Within – theatre’
‘Shadow Puppets – the War of Indrajit’