Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cambodia's literary epic comes to the London stage

14 March 2007

Demons fight simians in 'Weyreap's Battle' at the Barbican, but the real crusade was rebuilding the country's theatrical tradition after its near-annihilation by the Khmer Rouge

By Robert Turnbull
The Independent (UK)

During the Sixties, Jackie Kennedy, Marshal Josef Tito and Charles De Gaulle were among the rich and famous who travelled to the newly independent Cambodia to enjoy its resplendent dance culture. In those halcyon days under the country's formidable monarch King Norodom Sihanouk, performing artists were respected members of a vibrant and developing society.

The Khmer Rouge put an end to that. Faced with Pol Pot's infamous dictum "to keep you is no gain, to kill you no loss", dancers associated with the royal regime lived under constant threat of execution, often administered arbitrarily and with perfunctory violence. About 80 per cent of performing artists perished during the terror of 1975 to 1979.

From 1980, war-weary dancers, musicians and shadow puppeteers returned to Phnom Penh to begin the painstaking process of documenting centuries-old techniques preserved only in fragile memories. There was no money - artists were paid with petrol and rice - but within only a few years, complex dance-dramas made up of thousands of gestures had been rescued from oblivion. Tradition had proved its ability to resist the worst of mankind's brutality.

Britain has a rare chance to enjoy the fruits of more than 20 years of rebuilding Cambodia's dance repertory next week when an amalgam of Phnom Penh's Royal University of Fine Arts (Rufa), Cambodia's National Theatre and Amrita Performing Arts brings Weyreap's Battle to the Barbican Theatre, as part of its annual Bite festival. The new production represents the first full-length dance-drama of its type to have emerged from Cambodia for half a century.

The genre is "lakhaon kaol", a dance-drama performed by men and based on tales from the Ramayana. This great Hindu literary epic, in which gods and monkeys battle demons and ogres, and show supernatural powers as they triumph over evil, is so ingrained in the national consciousness as to remain a principal source of inspiration for Cambodia's artists.In a culture dependent on oral transmission, there's some debate around the origins of lakhaon kaol. A 10th-century Angkorian inscription describes a masked dance, but the Cambodian musicologist Pich Tum Kravel believes that the form first emerged in the 13th century.

Lakhaon kaol sections of the Reamker - the Cambodian version of the Ramayana - last eight or more hours. The action-packed 90-minute segment to be seen at the Barbican relates how the monkey king Hanuman and his forces rescue King Rama (Preah Ream) from the clutches of Weyreap, the brother of the evil tyrant Ravana (Krong Reap), who intends to drown him.

In the early 1970s, Amrita's Pum Bun Chanrath, the co-choreographer of Weyreap's Battle, enjoyed a comfortable living performing and teaching the role of Hanuman at Phnom Penh's Royal Palace. As was the case with millions of his compatriots, his life changed abruptly on 17 April 1975. Marched off into the countryside, he spent his years under the Khmer Rouge years farming vegetables, terrified of exposure as a classical dancer. When, finally, Chanrath "confessed" to being a monkey dancer, he was ordered to perform and he fully expected it to seal his fate. In fact, it saved his life. Chanrath's interrogator so enjoyed his simian antics dressed in nothing but an old cotton rice sack that he demanded repeat performances. "Hey, you, Hanuman, you will stay alive to dance for me," he screamed. For Chanrath, it was humiliating. "I was so sick with malnutrition, I kept stumbling," he says.

Finally returning to Phnom Penh in the mid-1980s, Chanrath, joined by Weyreap's Battle's co-choreographer Pok Sarann, worked tirelessly to rejuvenate the kaol style. At Phnom Penh's revived Rufa and the Department of Performing Arts of the Ministry of Culture, rehearsals were rigorous and characterised by a rare camaraderie, but in impoverished and battle-scarred Cambodia there were neither the funds for performances nor the political will to invest significantly in their endeavour.

A US embassy grant of $15,000 in 2003 was a dream come true. In Weyreap's Battle, Chanrath and Sarann were finally able to realise a new repertory piece that would respect the traditional kaol rules but have the integrity of its own sets and costumes. "In the past, we had a single bed and two bamboo frames as sets, and for lighting, only the moon," says Chanrath. "Now we can construct a real set and, with the help of lighting techniques, give our production a modern feel."

Weyreap's Battle has caused a sensation in Bangkok and Melbourne. Amrita's Fred Frumberg says: "Showcasing Cambodia's intangible heritage can only result in greater global appreciation of its importance as a source of invaluable world heritage."

So has Pol Pot's legacy been finally laid to rest? High-ranking Cambodians pay lip service to the idea of the traditional arts being "the soul of the nation", says Frumberg, but artists continue to face an enervating daily struggle against official neglect and organic corruption. "Cambodia's economy may be rapidly growing but while only 0.25 per cent of the country's national budget is spent on culture, artists will forever remain among the poorest of Cambodia's civil servants," he says.

In the absence of government investment, Amrita and other producing organisations engender the kind of nurturing environment that encourages creativity. "If artists and their admirers remain upbeat, it is largely because of increasing worldwide demand for their work," says Frumberg. "Cambodia's performing artists deserve to be honoured as the guardians of long-standing traditions that define its culture and underpin a civilisation that the Khmer Rouge brought so close to annihilation."

'Weyreap's Battle', Barbican, London EC1 (020-7638 8891), 30 March to 1 April

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