Friday, March 5, 2010

If I could tell you that I wouldnt have to dance it.

We had a weekend of culture this weekend and not the kind of culture we are usually exposed to.
Friday night saw us at another of the recitals that follow the classical music workshops organised by the German embassy. This night featured German pianist and teacher, Professor Rolf-Dieter Arens performing mostly solo pieces from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and a complicated piece by Liszt involving long pauses which were both confusing and amusing for the Khmer in the audience. The final piece involved the students that participated in the workshop; two violinists, a pair of flutists, a cellist and the Professor on the piano.

On sunday we went down to the park in front of Wat Botum to watch the final performance in a month long series of dance events sponsored by the CCF (Centre Culturel Francais) and Amrita. I had read in the paper the organisers were a bit worried about possible competition for both floor and air space as this park, as well as just about every other public park in the capital, usually play host to open air aerobics classes complete with huge boom boxes pumping out a heavy beat at as many decibels as the speakers will allow. Their concerns were unfounded, however, as new back lit temporary stages were more than enough to peak the interest of local exercisers.

The evening began with a slide show of photographs taken by Anders Jiras of the various events and dancers during the month on a large prominent screen.

People were free to wander the area or claim their seat on the mats in front of each stage as they desired. We watched the slides and kind of hovered between a couple of stages until we realised that the dancers were taking turns at each stage and if we just stayed put we would get to see a good slice of what was on offer.

The first performance at our stage was a classical piece which followed the traditional line of many classical dance themes; boy eyes girl who, although shes not really interested dances fetchingly in front of him. He eventually wins her over, after the obligatory misunderstandings are cleared up, and a pas de deux ensues. Khmer dance is very restrained, despite the subject matter, using hands and foot positions to show emotion and expression. These two also used some lifts and balance moves that were not the usual traditional technique and we wondered whether they had been inspired by visiting contemporary choreographers to slip them into their set.

Then we watched some hiphop come B Boy moves again with few recognisable contemporary dance lifts thrown in for good measure. Tiny Toones, where these dancers came from, is an education NGO run by a American Cambodian deportee Tuy Sobi,l or KK, who teaches street kids and at risk youth the fine art of Hip Hop and B Boy dancing (those of you who had to click the link because they didnt know what I was talking about...shame on you!!). The story goes that KK was approached by some street kids who had learned that he used to be a notable break dancer. They wanted him to teach them how to dance. At first KK wasnt so enthusiastic after all he had just been ejected from the only country he had ever known to a country he was supposed to be from but felt no connection to. KK, a Cambodian refugee born in a camp on the Thai boarder during the rough Khmer Rouge years, was one of the many refugees that had eventually managed to flee his troubled homeland and had settled in Long Beach California with his family but without ever becoming an American citizen after becoming involved with the gang scene and a decade in the American penal system he was summarily and unceremoniously deported. The kids were persistent and eventually wore him down. Today Tiny Toones has positively impacted the lives of over 500 at risk teens in the Phnom Penh area teaching them Khmer and English literacy, breakdancing (or B Boying), DJ skills and rap. It is an inspirational story, yes? The dancers are an inspirational bunch too with some barely reaching double digits in age. I'm sure they would give Nigel Lythgoe something to smile about!

The next set was a contemporary piece about two trash collectors which began with a very clever heart felt pas de deux between boy and trash bag.

There was no word on how long the dancer had been dancing but he had impressive control and expression already.

Then his partner came on and the set evolved to include some recognisably contemporary lifts and body shapes. I was enthralled. We are incredibly lucky in New Zealand to have had the opportunity to be exposed to quite a lot of dance in many of it's forms. Both M and I were students at an American Jazz studio for many years before moving to Samoa. Dance is our soul food.

New Zealand often plays host to some fantastic dance companies from all over the world and we are blessed to have a few classical and contemporary choreographers we can call our own as well as the exceptionally capable and awe inspiring Royal New Zealand Ballet Company which like the Sydney Dance Company is as good performing a Balanchine as they are a Douglas Wright or a Michael Parmenter. As a genre contemporary dance is not easy as Isadora Duncan once said when asked to describe the style, 'If I could tell you that I wouldn't have to dance it!'

Contemporary dance was developed in the early 20th century as a reaction against the rigid techniques of ballet. Pioneers such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham searched for ease of movement using the body's natural lines and energy, allowing for a greater range and fluidity of movement than conventional dance techniques and encouraging dancers and choreographers to push the boundaries of dance and physical movement. New Zealands Footnote Dance Company has been teaching and dancing contemporary dance for more than 22 years and has spawned many a stunningly capable and beautifully expressive dancer and choreographer. We now have schools in Auckland (here and here), Wellington (and here) and at Otago teaching dance in all its genres.

Characterised by its versatility, contemporary dance can be danced to almost any style of music, or melded with other dance forms which in New Zealand has meant we have been treated to some very unique dance borrowing and inspired by traditional indigenous movement from Maori and Pacific island styles. Companies like Black Grace,  Merenia Gray and Atamira as well as solo performers, choreographers and integrated dance companies such as Jolt and Touch Compass that push the boundaries and perceptions of physical abilities. I love the raw human expression in the genre and the fact it can be as easily accompanied by Vivaldi as it can by The Blackeyed Peas. Can you tell I've missed it?

The next dancer was a tutor who performed a very modern contemporary piece more about movement than telling a story.

And then more B Boying, innovative and demanding, Khmer style.

The final item we saw was a contemporary narrative about a hunter and various animals in the forest.

Despite what this looks like there was no killing!

The audience at our stage sat and stood enthralled through most of the performances and applauded enthusiastically, as did we. The variety ensured there was something for everyone and it's an event I am hoping I wont have to wait another year to see again.

On the way home I couldnt resist taking this picture of Independence Monument all lit up like a temple tower.

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