Amrita Performing Arts is showcasing its sixth dance platform this month. Ahead of its premiere, Kate Sutherland got a sneak peek of what’s in store. Photography by Charles Fox.

Located behind Circus Hall and next to the Kite Museum, Amrita dancers and choreographers are deeply focused on rehearsing their creative works-in-progress. The humidity doesn’t seem to faze them, as six dancers leap across the stage in perfect synchronisation. They rehearse without music, but the sequences are not lacking in drama, or theatrical effects.  Dancers pound the mats with force, jump, scream and shout – then float, fly and sway.

The dance ensembles pay homage to traditional Cambodian dance, while exploring the present through a contemporary lens. The set is simple: mirrors, black drapery, a lap top and fans; the quaint surroundings reflect the raw social themes portrayed. Feelings of anger, fear, loss, perseverance, ambition and love are all conveyed through dance.

Preparing for their sixth platform performance this month, Amrita Performing Art’s dancers and choreographers have been rehearsing for more six weeks now. While practicing the two creative works-in-progress, AsiaLife was given a sneak preview to see how contemporary and classical dance can work in harmony together.

One of the dance ensembles to premiere at the beginning of June is Departure, choreographed by Chankethya Chey. During rehearsal, Chey shouts, “Open”, and the lights come on. “Close” and they are immediately dimmed. She plays with lighting to enhance and emphasise moods and scenes throughout, while delivering a show rich in dance technique and a storyline of daily struggles.

Taking a break from rehearsals, Chey says, “The dancers at Amrita continue to evolve. We have done workshops with internationally renowned directors and choreographers from across the world, but we continue to explore our own creative and physical limits as well.”

The platform performances allow dancers to showcase Cambodian talent, with the hope to encourage other local artists to create original work. “We are ready to teach others about our own style, and we believe Cambodia should be represented on an international platform like many others,” says Chey.

The more recent performances have attracted more interest from young Cambodians, and Amrita bosses see this as solid evidence of success.

“This is a big positive for us,” Chey adds. “The Cambodian youth are curious. They may not understand it, on the other hand they will ask more questions. There will be more discussion, more research, and this is important. In Cambodia, we are used to understanding everything, but if we really look at our lives we don’t. To have some doubt is a good thing.”

The second show is directed by Ratana Chy, a 27-year-old dancer from Phnom Penh, whose expertise and classical training was completed at the Royal University of Fine Arts in 2007. Chy studied the Ramayana “masked” dance before joining the group of artists at Amrita and learning about contemporary dance.

He says, “The masked male dance is more about telling a story than expressing your personal opinions.” Often dressed up as a monkey or a character from religious tales, dancers explore the battle between good and evil, which are relevant social themes in daily life today. However, Chy says, “Both genres of dance require a different approach. Contemporary dance allows me to be myself and it has to come from within.” This will be his first time showing his choreography work at a platform performance, and he believes in a give-and-take approach when working with his dancers. “When I choreograph, I don’t just tell the dancers what to do. I ask them a question and I ask them to think about it and answer it with their body.” His finished piece, Somewhere, is designed for two dancers and will last about 16 minutes in total.

Interacting with new dancers, each platform allows the performances to remain unique, vibrant, and evolved from the previous. The performances are a chance for Amrita to tackle artistic development, but also to focus on audience development as well. “As important as it is to create, it is equally important to have people witness those creations,” says Chey. “We want to engage with the audience and share something with them. We think we have a responsibility of introducing contemporary dance to the community. We want to entertain but we want to convey a message also.”

If the creative works-in-progress were any indication of what the performances will master on opening night, audiences can expect an emotional and touching reaction from both works of art. From ministry officials to foreigners and to the young Cambodian generation, Amrita Performing Arts aims to share its creations with the world.

The platform performances can be seen on Jun. 3 and 4 at 7pm at the Department of Performing Arts in Phnom Penh. For more information on the organisation, visit amritaperformingarts.org.