Shaping change can be a challenge but it’s an area where one of the country’s leading contemporary choreographers is quickly finding her feet. Marissa Carruthers meets Chankethya Chey. Photography by Charles Fox.

As a five-year-old, Chankethya Chey recalls being dragged to classical dance lessons by her mother. “I remember not being that keen to go,” the animated 30-year-old says. “It had always been my mum’s dream; I’m not sure if it was always mine.”

Chey quickly grew to love the apsara dance she was being taught. And she enjoyed the connection it brought with her heritage, thanks to the tales told through the graceful gestures and movements that make up the traditional Cambodian art.

“I learned to respect the dance form,” she says. “It shaped my passion, my personality, my behaviour. At the same time, it also helped to mold my perspective towards my country and my people. It’s part of Cambodian identity. Apsara represents our ancient high civilisation.”

Following her passion, Chey enrolled in a high school diploma in dance, triggering her intrigue for choreography and more modern forms. She went on to study dance choreography at the Royal University of Fine Arts and graduated in 2005.

The next year, her talents saw her snapped up by the acclaimed Phnom Penh-based contemporary dance organisation, Amrita Performing Arts. This exposed her to a whole new world of dance through the international artists the organisation brings to the country to work with performers.

However, Chey became embroiled in an inner battle. Torn between her classical roots and the new contemporary world she was exploring, she applied for a Fulbright scholarship in 2010 to help her gain more understanding and find her place.

“At first I didn’t want to move away from my classical roots; it’s my identity, it’s who I am. I also questioned whether contemporary or modern dance would destroy or help preserve our classical culture,” she says.

“Then I learnt the two can co-exist and inspire one another. Contemporary dance is important because we have to have our own take on events that happen now,” Chey adds, citing feminism and multiculturalism as issues relevant to today.

In 2011, she became the first RUFA graduate to secure the prestigious Fulbright award and started a Masters in Dance/Choreography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

During her time there, she wowed her peers and teachers as she pushed her boundaries, featuring in a series of award-winning pieces, including Crack and Olden New Golden Blue. She also presented her piece, My Mother and I, as part of the Season of Cambodia Festival in New York in April 2013.

The work, which she performed at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre on Oct. 2, addresses the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and its impact on a generation of women, as well as Chey’s relationship with her own mother. “My mother is my inspiration. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing this now,” she says.

Chey graduated from UCLA in August, armed with a clutch of awards, including the university’s out-standing graduate student accolade, the Os Mostin Award, and a determination to steer Cambodian dance into a new era.

“My time at UCLA really made me realise that as artists, we have to follow current events and respond to them,” she notes. “We have to ask ourselves, how can we as artists contribute to the better of our society?”

Since returning to her homeland, Chey has been recruited as Amrita’s artistic director and is relishing the role, helping shape a new generation of the Kingdom’s dancers. “I want Cambodian contemporary dance to retain its own classical identity while reflecting today’s society. My job is to make sure this happens.”

However, her quest hasn’t been easy, with many Cambodians reluctant to embrace this new age. “Contemporary dance is so new for us and it will take time to accept it,” Chey remarks. “I don’t want to force it on anyone. It has to happen organically for people to understand deeply what it means.”

In a bid to help nurture this knowledge, Chey holds a Q&A session after each performance, giving the audience the chance to quiz her on the ideas behind the abstract pieces.

“We have been so silent in so many ways,” the choreographer adds, trying to put meaning behind the challenges her new role poses. “The genocide and war, all these things have shaped Cambodian behaviour.”

As Chey prepares to pass on her knowledge to her next class of trainee dancers ahead of their debut show, Platform, she adds, “One of the reasons contemporary art exists is to evoke questions and discussion. I want to give inspiration to younger generations and hopefully they will use some of my knowledge to discover new things.”

For more information on Amrita Performing Arts and Chey’s work, visit www.amritaperformingarts.org