A Q&A with Devi Vanhon, a founder of Cambodia’s first ballet school
Devi Vanhon started ballet at 15, but her professional dancing ambitions were crushed two years later when depleted funds stopped her from going to classes.
Now, aged 31, she has found her dancing feet again. A chance meeting with British dancer Stephen Bimson last year led to the April opening of Phnom Penh’s Central School of Ballet, a meeting place for the country’s aspiring dancers.
After a hiatus of 15 years, you rekindled your love for ballet last year. How has ballet changed for you since you were a teenager?
I still love the combination of athletic movement and rhythm, as well as the physical challenge and emotional expressiveness of ballet. However, restarting at 31 years old, I have no delusions of becoming a prima ballerina. I will never be a great dancer, but I feel this is something I can do for myself. I have the opportunity to express myself. In my opinion, for the adult dancer, dance has to come from the mind. Of course we want to improve – in our fantasies we want to perform as a professional – but improvement will tail off over time and eventually we have to find pleasure in the act of dance, whether or not we meet any standard of performance we create for ourselves.
How does ballet complement traditional Cambodian dance forms?
Both ballet and Apsara dance are a symbol of high refinement and reflect a gentle and balanced culture with their respective features of elegance, aestheticism and nobleness. I think that the values of confidence, grace and discipline that ballet instills are something that fits perfectly with traditional Khmer culture. I think ballet sits a lot better with Khmer culture than many other more modern dance forms from the West.
Is Cambodia ready for ballet?
If Cambodia is ready for ice cream, mobile phones, the internet, photography, technology, music and so many other things from the West, Cambodia is definitely ready for ballet. Cambodia has a rich cultural heritage of music, art and dance that dates back many centuries, and that is strong enough to withstand changes in the cultural landscape. I believe Western ballet can become a part of the local culture as well as bridge various cultural and art forms of the world. Western art has never been and never will be a threat to Cambodian culture. The only threat Cambodia’s culture experienced came from within the country.
How do child dancers differ from adult dancers?
Young kids are so fearless. They are not afraid of trying new things, falling or looking silly. I actually envy them at times. It does take them a lot more time to learn things and their attention wanders very quickly too. Adults are a lot more focused, yet they fear ridicule.
Ballet is about illusions: Do perceptions of ballet and gender make some people reluctant to try the dance form?
Stereotypes run deep in ballet, and men are more likely to be reluctant to try ballet than women. Individually boys and men can get over the stereotypes, and of those that have come to our studio, all have made a real effort to get to grips with the dance. However, the issue of how society views them still lingers, which is a shame. Dance offers so much. I think that males need an artistic outlet very much; they are, unfortunately, limited to very few stereotypical types of expression. It is never too late to try something new. Ballet is only for younger, thinner, fitter people, or for women, if you decide it is.
What’s in the future for the Central School of Ballet?
We plan to offer the Royal Academy of Dance curriculum. We hope to get royal patronage from the Cambodian king and we want to offer scholarships through an outreach programme for underprivileged and socio-economically challenged people. I want CSB to become the cradle of ballet education in Cambodia. I know we are the only ballet school in Cambodia for now, but I also want to make CSB the best pre-professional ballet school in the region. I want students from neighbouring countries to want to come to us to study ballet.
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