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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2021: The New Cambodian Artists talk COVID, contemporary arts and ‘Snow Whitening Revisited’

When you think of something that encapsulates Cambodian performing arts, it’s likely more to do with something deeply cultural and traditional, in terms of both form and presentation. But one group has emerged from the masses to stand apart on their own terms, as the New Cambodian Artists make a name for themselves as Cambodia’s first (and probably only) contemporary performing artists in the country.

Founded in 2012 by Artistic Director Bob Ruijzendaal, and now co-owned by company director Khon Sreyneang with three dancers Khun Sreynuch, Kong Soengva, and Lai Ny, New Cambodian Artists will be making their Singapore debut with a digital production streaming as part of the 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Titled Snow Whitening Revisited, the dance-theatre production features Khun Sreynuch and Ny Lai coming to grips with their lives as female contemporary artists in a popular provincial tourist destination struck by COVID-19. Now devoid of visitors, the town becomes something of a dystopian movie set, as the dancers cope with this absurd life of being an artist with no audience, holding on to each other as they struggle to survive and make sense of this new normal.

“It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t feature all three of our dancers in this piece, which we had to reimagine for just two dancers,” says Bob. “It’s still the same subject and same story, and holds echoes of our third dancer, but in a way, it’s become something completely new, and it’s an opportunity to revisit the piece and make it even better.”

“We’ve had to improvise, process changes, come up with the music, and conceptualise new ideas in our process, where one change can affect the entire piece,” adds Sreynuch (Nuch). “It’s a work that comprises so many pieces, all linked in a chain from beginning to end.”

Bob goes on to explain how he’s been a theatre director all his life, while also often incorporating dance and movement into his work to create cross-genre pieces. It was only when he came to Cambodia that he began exploring choreography specifically, and taking his craft further. “I see myself more as a facilitator than a choreographer, and it’s usually a case where my dancers and I work intensively together to create the final work, with them focusing on the movements, and myself on the images these create. For eight years now, it’s like we’ve developed our own language, done so much studying, and taken on influences from everywhere. Nowadays, I can’t imagine having done anything besides dance.”

“You end up depending on the ticket sales from your own performance and pray that you won’t be blacklisted.

On what it means to be a contemporary dancer in Cambodia, Nuch shares a little of her history as a dancer. “When I was a kid, I just wanted to move and dance, and my background is primarily in classical dance, and that’s what most of the dance scene is like in Cambodia. Working with Bob, I finally felt like I could say things about the unfair treatment of women in Cambodia, where I could express how I no longer wanted to be the princess rescued by the prince,” she explains. “For Ny Lai, it felt like we’ve known each other our whole lives, because we’ve been dancing together since we were kids. We are always there for each other, and we stand strong for each other, surviving together and coming together when we’re feeling lost. And in this time, it’s been especially hard for dancers because of how there are no tourists at all in Siem Reap, completely abandoned, while restaurants, shops and entertainment are all closed, like a zombie town.

“It’s hard to be an artist in Cambodia, because there are almost no sponsors or funding from the government at all,” adds Nuch. “You end up depending on the ticket sales from your own performance and pray that you won’t be blacklisted. We’re very lucky that this time, we’re also supported by a German organisation, so that we are able to make the art we want.”

“For ourselves as New Cambodian Artists, one of our main goals was really to address how women are treated in Cambodia.

“Cambodia really lacks an ‘arts scene’, so to speak, and the relationship between art and tourism is heavily linked,” explains Bob, on being contemporary artists in the country. “For ourselves as New Cambodian Artists, one of our main goals was really to address how women are treated in Cambodia. Snow Whitening Revisited also touches on such issues, where you’ll see Ny Lai at one point forced into a wedding dress, where marriage becomes the only solution to become financially independent, now that no one can work in a restaurant or massage parlour. Even in their own bodies, apparently because they have muscular dancer bodies, men are afraid of them, as women aren’t ‘supposed’ to have muscles in Cambodia!

Beyond the topic of gender and the treatment of women, Snow Whitening Revisited also touches on the shadow of the Khmer Rouge, haunted by trauma, while dealing with the crisis of the present. “When the show opens, you’ll see Nuch in the dark with portraits of dead women, and it’s almost like all her bones are broken, as she slowly makes her way to a small stool Ny Lai is sitting on, and really embodies all that pain, linking the horrors of the Khmer Rouge to the darkness that has fallen over the city now,” says Bob. “So many people have become unemployed and find it so hard to put food on the table, and we remember the people who died in the Khmer Rouge, and the echoes of how women today are struggling to make a name for themselves as contemporary artists. My job then is to make sure these stories are brought out through their dance, and that it sends a message against the people who are still being so conservative, and think that this is not the ‘right’ way of presenting Cambodian arts.”

“It always feels good to see an audience come out talking about our work, and I don’t really need them to think a certain way, but just that they will be touched, and to see that Cambodian art isn’t just about showcasing beauty and humour, but to be able to make people cry and feel deep emotions as well, to see the struggle and ugliness underneath it all,” says Nuch. “All these years, the arts is what keeps me alive and sane, to keep working on what we do, stay busy, and keep doing things.”

“When we went to Holland, it was incredible how they finally experienced a contemporary show that really moved them, and even cried when watching a show,” says Bob. “Prior to this, all they’d watched were online recordings, which is very strange for a dancer. But since then, they’ve had a chance to connect with some of the world’s finest contemporary dancers since, as friends, mentors and teachers to them, and they’ve grown so much as artists and people. I really admire their strength and determination, considering how they were ridiculed at the beginning for not having ‘real’ jobs unless they worked in tourism. It’s almost ironic how the tables have turned, and look where they are today, with jobs, their own studio, and the confidence to do it, walking out together hand in hand, and stronger than ever before.”

Photo Credit: Anders Jiras

Snow Whitening Revisited streams from 25th to 31st January 2021 as part of the 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets available here

The 2021 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival runs from 20th to 31st January 2021. Tickets available from SISTIC

For the first time, the Fringe is launching a special stay-home package to catch all performances at the festival via SISTIC Live. For an exclusive rate of $95, get access to all videos on demand of the Fringe performances throughout their screening periods.

Check out more information and the safety measures at venues the Fringe will be held at on their website here

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