Still in the cheap seats

 September’s Lakhaon festival hopes to reach a wider Khmer audienceand gain support for the rehabilitation of traditional Cambodian theatre

Charlie Lancaster
September 10, 2009

 September’s Lakhaon festival hopes to reach a wider Khmer audienceand gain support for the rehabilitation of traditional Cambodian theatre

Many might wonder just where would Cambodian arts be without the efforts of foreign organisations? With little in the way of theatrical offerings other than Apsara ballet in its ancient and modern forms, without foreign input, the country would be swamped by second-rate knock-offs of western music and culture.

Hands on: director Frank Manzoni (centre) during rehearsals (Charlie Lancaster)

In September the French Cultural Centre (CCF) is staging its third Lakhaon festival. The eight-day event will put on six plays performed by more than 100 Khmer artists. Its organisers expect to sell out the 800-seat Chenla theatre to a largely Khmer audience, which will make it one of the most important performing arts festivals of the year in Cambodia.

No xenophobe: Proeung Chhieng says foreign support for the arts is vital
No xenophobe: Proeung Chhieng says foreign support for the arts is vital

“If the CCF or arts-related NGOs such as Amrita of Khmer Arts Ensemble did not put on such performances, I am not sure who or what would drive performing arts, traditional or modern, in Cambodia,” said Proeung Chhieng, vice rector of the Royal University for Fine Arts (Rufa). A lack of funds and public theatres, plus the absence of a national budget for the performing arts in the kingdom, limit its development, he added. “It is important for us to collaborate with foreigners, because we lack the finance and therefore cannot produce quality performances without help from outside.”

This has not been helped by the gradual slowdown of government support for the arts and the inexorable march of development projects.

In the early 1980s there were about 10 theatres in the capital and roughly one in each province. Now Phnom Penh is home to only two (Chaktomuk and Chenla); the Bassac theatre that burned down in 1994 was demolished in 2008 to make way for an as yet unspecified development project. In 2002 Rufa had to move from its campus base with a small stage to one that has no stage at all to make way for another grand architectural design. Result: no live performances.

In an aid-dependent cultural environment such as exists in Cambodia, there seems to be little willpower to foster new ideas. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it seems to be the mantra. Tourists continue to flock to traditional Apsara dance performances so there’s no need for Cambodians to try novel, creative ideas. As a result the vacuum has been filled by artistic theatre and dance from overseas.

Many of the artists who survived the Khmer Rouge, estimated to be only 10% of pre-1975 numbers, have now died. So far it is only non-governmental organisations that have tried to preserve what those survivors remembered in an attempt to revive the arts, said Chhieng. “There are 23 different forms of Lakhaon or Cambodian folk opera. We have only recovered 10 or 12. The CCF’s festival will revive five of them.”

“Our goal is to keep tradition alive and some of the performances such as Lakhaon Kbach Boran – one of Cambodia’s oldest and most sacred forms of theatre – will be performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and the Khmer Arts Ensemble. They are purely traditional,” says Magali Poivert, the CCF’s cultural co-ordinator. “In other performances the artists use traditional models to address contemporary issues such as poverty and exploitation. They also incorporate Khmer poetry, martial arts and a traditional orchestra to be performed by the department of fine arts.”

“Traditional and modern performances are two separate entities that can be left to stand alone or blended,” says Frank Manzoni, a French comedian and director, who is staging the festival’s opening performance of The Girl, The Devil and The Mill, which is a Khmer adaptation of a German fairytale. “It is not necessary to sacrifice one in order to pursue the other. Here it is not a question of the quality of acting but one of culture. The actors are trapped in a strict code of conduct that does not allow for individual expression,” says the 42-year-old director. “Exposure to different ideas and methods allow actors to experiment, learn new techniques and develop their creativity. It is a natural, healthy stage of progression.”

In Cambodia, he pointed out, foreign input is not only an important source of inspiration but also the driving force behinds the arts.

“In general I don’t think there is a real wish at a national level to promote arts to a professional standard. There is little cultural politics, no money, no people. It is natural, therefore, that this void will be filled by others.”

Members of the Cambodian government from the top down have publicly set their faces against the invasion of foreign art and culture for fear it will swamp the country’s traditional values. What they seem to forget is that China and India have influenced Khmer culture for hundreds of years and in more recent times western influences have prevailed. The country’s art, literature, theatre and music have been the beneficiaries, as have the country’s fans.

Lakhaon Festival, Sept. 4 – 11, 2009, Phnom Penh

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