The latest show from Epic Arts, Come Back Brighter, is a powerful piece that traces Cambodia’s recent past. Editor Marissa Carruthers travels to Kampot to watch the performance.
The applause is silent, but the silence has added poignancy. Instead of the rapturous sound of clapping the show deserves echoing around the Old Royal Cinema in Kampot, the audience frantically wave their hands in the air at the eight performers taking a bow on stage.
The lack of noise is not because the show went unappreciated – there was barely a dry eye in the house. Instead, it is because the majority of the performers are deaf, and just moments before the curtain closed on Epic Arts’ latest show, Come Back Brighter, the audience was taught a few simple words in Khmer sign language, including how to clap.
Fusing traditional and modern dance, Come Back Brighter takes the audience on a journey through Cambodia’s turbulent history, told via a breath-taking combination of theatre, video and dance. Broken down into three acts, it gives the audience a snapshot into Cambodia’s Golden Era, its harrowing war torn days and the exciting time it is entering today – all performed by a troupe who have refused to let their disabilities hamper their capabilities.
Having premiered in the UK and Singapore last year, and put in an appearance at the Acts of Memory Festival in Phnom Penh, it seemed only fitting that the troupe, Epic Encounters, stage a run of the show on home turf in Kampot.
“For the performers themselves, it’s a fantastic opportunity to show what they can do, telling the story of so many people in this beautiful land, while celebrating the inclusive and diverse nature of Cambodia’s growing arts and cultural landscape,” says Onn Sokny, of Epic Arts’ senior management team.
Choreographed by Amrita Performing Arts’ Nam Narim for the original Epic Encounters’ UK tour last year, senior managers Laura Evans and Onn invited Nam back to develop the show further. Epic Arts’ Anthony Evans added to the mix and compiled the moving projections that intersperse the show, and UK award-winning filmmakers, Suzanne James and Darren Teale, created a short documentary tracing the history of the venue and the Cambodian couple who moved into it in 1984 in a bid to rekindle the country’s quashed arts scene.
Performed in the fitting surroundings of the old cinema – a decaying relic of what was once a thriving cultural hub – the show offers a compelling snapshot into the country’s past, present and future. Opening in the Swinging Sixties, the performers recreate the vibrant Golden Age, twisting and shaking on the dance floor to the rock ‘n’ roll sounds that captivated the country.
But all this is quickly cut short, as the show moves to Year Zero and the dark days that saw the Khmer Rouge take hold, and destroy the people, the culture, the art and the landscape, leaving “scars on the body and minds”. The harrowing ordeal of this era is underpinned by the dark turn the dancing takes, the pain on the performers’ faces and in their tortured, desperate movements, and the withered dancers, who like dominos, fall to the ground, but fail to get up.
Paying testament to its name, and the efforts of Cambodia to rebuild itself, the final act holds hope as the Kingdom enters a new age. Developing at a rapid pace, the country is once again finding its feet, art is starting to blossom and its rich culture is being reborn. “Cambodia is rediscovering who it is again, its people are discovering their soul, and the arts are thriving,” is emblazoned on the screen towards the end of the show
Aiming to trace the rise, demise and resurrection of the arts scene in Cambodia, the performers themselves are evidence of this movement. Despite the majority being deaf, not a beat is missed during their synchronised dancing, and the jaw-dropping moves pulled off by one of the main players from his wheelchair are impressive.
Launching in Cambodia in 2006, Epic Arts main aim was to provide opportunities for disabled people in the Kingdom. Seeing a desperate need for facilities within the arts, they set up shop in Kampot, opening Epic Arts Café, then the town’s first art centre to nurture the scene.
Epic Encounters was later formed as a social enterprise for Epic Arts, with the talented group of performing artists being Southeast Asia’s first and only fully inclusive dance company. Ork Savy, 30, who stars in Come Back Brighter, has been a part of the troupe since it formed two years ago, having trained with Epic Arts for four years. He has not let his deafness prevent him from becoming the company’s performance co-ordinator and a keen choreographer.
“To be part of this is an amazing opportunity,” he says, wearing a broad grin after successfully pulling off another top show. “I work with such talented people and it is inspiring. This is a show about our history, our art and our identity.”
Come Back Brighter can be seen at the Old Royal Cinema, Kampot, every Friday until May 6 at 7.30pm. A Saturday show takes place on Apr. 9. Tickets are $10, children $7, Khmer adults $2.50 and Khmer children $1. To book, phone 078 719 816.