It is hard to write a review of anything in Cambodia without mentioning the horrid past, which also had to be the case this time in order to give the reader the full picture of the performance I have witnessed.
After spending some time looking for the theatre scene in Phnom Penh I have realized that it is actually quite hard to find (there is some going on, but not even close to what you normally would expect from a capital) and there is a good reason for it. During the Khmer Rouge period (1975-79) most artists didn’t make it, leaving the country in a state of cultural depravation. Artefacts traditions and knowledge were lost when all the educated people, and as much as 90 % of the artists, were killed.
Those who survived formed small groups in refugee camps in Thailand, determined to revive the art. Most of the classical dancers in Cambodia today spring from these groups and are making every effort to revive Cambodia’s severely injured cultural scene. The fate of these ancient traditions is in the hands of the young generation. Even though the cultural scene is slowly growing there are still just very few places in Phnom Penh where you can go and see classical Cambodian living arts. One of these places is the National Museum.
In the beautiful setting of the National Museum the organisation “Cambodian Living Arts”, consisting of young dancers trained in traditional Khmer dance, perform throughout the week. The music is traditional Khmer music consisting of instruments uncommon in the west with sounds that resemble Indian folk music. This of course is no surprise as many Khmer traditions spring from the Hindu traditions but have developed and changed into something very uniquely Khmer. Now these young dancers, being one of the most professional groups in Cambodia, struggle to make a living doing what they love and bringing culture back into the soul of the country.
The performance is absolutely grand in its execution, the costumes are delightfully extravagant and the dance is performed with such grace, attention to details and skilfulness that it leaves you in awe. As in many productions all over the world there is a variation of talent on stage, however in this show they all keep high standards, with some of the actors being undeniably wonderful and spellbinding. The Cambodian Living Arts perform a series of pictures portraying everyday life in Cambodia, rice picking, falling in love, being out in nature and getting married… The situations for an outsider, like myself, are not always given but the story does not seem to be the main purpose of the performance, and really you don’t need to know what it is about to appreciate it. With the traditional Khmer music and the colourful costumes the show brought me back to the magic world of a childhood fantasy; the fairy tales of exotic lands, princes and princesses and endless possibilities. I could just sit back and enjoy being taken on a dreamlike ride into the heart of Cambodia.
To say that the soul of a country lies in its culture has never been truer. I truly believe that Cambodia will gain back its pride and heal its wounds through art.
Do visit the National Museum when you arrive in Phnom Penh, do go and see their performances, show the young people that art is interesting, that there is a request for it and that it makes a difference. And if that doesn’t tempt you enough just go there to get a cultural boost that puts a smile on your face for the rest of the day, because what ever might have been lost in the production is definitely made up by the enthusiasm and dedication of these young performers.