The storied tradition of the Cambodian Apsara dance was first inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, and has been shopped around for the past two decades as the model child of Cambodian culture. Challenging an impending sense of cultural commodification, pandemic hysteria and ingrained social mores towards women, the New Cambodian Artists (NCA) are a group that reimagines the swan-like grace of Apsara with the tenets of contemporary dance. Over the past week, we sat down with artistic mentor Bob Ruijzendaal as well as co-performers, Ny Lai and Khun Sreynuch, to find out more about the creative process behind their spell-binding, surreal staging of Snow Whitening Revisited. See below for the interview!
AJ: To get the ball rolling, Bob, can you take us through your creative process when coming up with Snow Whitening Revisited?
Ruijzendaal: Snow Whitening Revisited has been a very long process. It looks back on the history of both NCA and Cambodia using the imagery that we have been using for almost two years. We don’t have a fixed concept; we talk about ideas and we just start working on it. We perform and find how people react or feel and then we change it again and again.
This process has been different from all the other processes because we started with three dancers and for personal reasons, we are left with two and had to make a completely new piece. At the same time, there was also COVID, so I was not able to finish the piece with them but rather [had to return to Amsterdam to] work from home. That was a very different process and I cannot compare it to anything I’ve ever done before.
At the end, it appeared that we could not use the music that we were using. Music is an important cornerstone of the work. Dance, the movements, are based on the music so two weeks before the deadline of the piece, we had to redo the piece again. The musicians had to compose a whole new piece in under two weeks for me to edit. It was a very strange process.
AJ: Since we’re talking about the overall logistics of the play, leading with the changes to the music, how has COVID as a whole affected the preparations for this performance in fact?
Ruijzendaal: Well, the fact that I’m here and they are there, is quite something.
Probably I could work with them, because they know me very well. I know the space, I can actually smell what it smells like if I see them work. I know exactly how big the space is and what they can do. And they know exactly what they can expect from me. But sometimes it felt more like directing a movie, which is somewhere in my background — that may have helped. It’s very different to work from a stream than being in a theatre. We all felt very empty. Sometimes we had a rehearsal or even a performance that we shot, and it was completely. We were like yeah, [but] it’s not real, is it? Everything felt like it was fake, [like] we didn’t actually do it. Very strange.
AJ: So it was quite a bit impersonal, in a sense?
Ruijzendaal: For me, it was. But I recognise them. In them I recognise the story, I recognise everything. And I recognise my own work in it, but yes, it’s, it’s something you want to make for an audience, it’s something you want to make with the dancers. I couldn’t do that. But I don’t know what it was like for Nuch and Lai, to work without me being there. So, it must’ve been different, because they had each other and they were actually doing it. Sometimes I worked with them for 4 hours and felt like I did nothing.
At one point, we had a premiere for a small audience in the theatre, and we started at 6.30. At 6.15, we heard that a relative that lives with Lai was connected with someone who had COVID, and saw that person very regularly. They decided to close down the theatre and send everyone home. It was really weird to hear that, you want to start and someone says: “Nope, we’re closing.” And you’re in custom, then you have to send your audience home. It must’ve been terrible.
AJ: How then do you feel about the audience perhaps viewing your work in a different way, now that some might very well be watching in the comfort of one’s home, away from other people?
Ruijzendaal: Well, I felt I had nothing to do with it, almost. As if I was sucked in completely, with nothing distracting me. If you watch that way, you can really feel the emotions that are there. You can go to the bathroom, get some peanuts, or whatever when you’re watching. And I’d agree, there’s no group feeling unless you watch with 20 people, and pretend it’s a show, which again entirely feels like a film…
That would be great, while you’re looking at the show, you don’t often have the best space for viewing. A director might have imagined a big open space, with the applause and other cues filling in the space around you, which we play with that a little bit in Snow Whitening Revisited.
The colour white (white powder, white gown, “Snow Whitening”) is a very prominent motif in your performance. What does it signify and what inspired this choice?
Ruijzendaal: It has to do with many things actually. It is the history of the Apsara dancers, which used to be completely white to depersonalise them. It is also to reflect lights — at that time there weren’t any theatre lights, so there were just candles. When it reflects, it also works as a mask since you cannot see the person.
Sreynuch: The white is not just used to reflect light, but also to cover the emotion on dancers’ faces because our emotions have to be conveyed through the motion of our body, our gestures and not our faces.
Ruijzendaal: It’s a depersonalisation of the dancers. There is a culture of wanting to be white in Southeast Asia, which has got something to do with colonisation and wanting to be similar to Western people. The whiter you are, the more chance you have to marry someone with money. That was how they chose their women — they have to be white. People take dangerous methods to become whiter. If you are not white enough, you are a peasant, and nobody wants to be a peasant.
AJ: In the context of this performance, which symbolism did the “whiteness” embody the most?
Sreynuch: It definitely had multiple meanings. In our performance, it represented our history and the purity of the brides who are about to be married to a rich family.
Ruijzendaal: We used photographs of women who were killed in prison in many different shows. In the end, the dancers glowed white over the portraits which were lined on the floor, which was like the ashes, to honour their deaths. White is very much present as a symbol of female innocence and availability. In many other performances, dancers wash the white away, but in this one, they put it on each other. But actually, it signifies them moving out and leaving this behind them.
AJ: Snow Whitening Revisited which explores the experiences of female artists. What drew you into sharing this issue with the mass?
Sreynuch: As a female in my country, we are not treated fairly. As a female contemporary artist, it is even worse. Some people expect a lot from us, while some people don’t. Females in other countries are expected to have plenty of ideas, talk, and have a voice. They even go to University. But we are just like a puppet once we turn 18. It doesn’t feel fair, it doesn’t feel right. Because us, female artists, have a brain and are human too. Why reduce our rights? We are fed up with this and so we have to do something.
AJ: While we are on the topic of women’s experiences in Cambodia, do you feel that there are more female artists, like yourself, who are trying to question the issue in their own ways?
Sreynuch: In our city, NCA is pretty much on our own. There aren’t many artists here, we have two male painters and a few others. But in Phnom Penh, I definitely think more people are doing something. I’m not sure what though. Because most of the artists I am in contact with are not doing anything; most of them are also male.
Ruijzendal: Can I add something? I’m in a quite different position about it. I’ve worked in Phnom Penh before and about 12 to 13 years ago, there was a movement of artists who wanted to do different things. They were the first generation to actually want to approach things differently. It was a small step but they were very ambitious. All of them are working for the government now and are in contact with NCA. What I see is that the ones pushing things are doing so very individually. There isn’t a movement of people wanting to change things, or a movement of women demanding their place in society or even art, which is still very contained. Sometimes, it seems that it is going backwards more than it is advancing.
AJ: In that sense, maybe to build on the question a little bit, do you see a glimmer of hope in the new generation of artists? In fact, where do you see NCA as a whole in about 10 years?
Ruijzendaal: Well, the past year has allowed us to learn that planning in Cambodia is an incredibly difficult thing. You never know what the government’s about to do. If you work in the arts in Cambodia, you would think that there’s some progress in the past 13 years. But I find it’s actually moving back. NCA’s been developing so well since they’re in Siem Reap and they have their own studio, they were blacklisted, and in the studio, they can more or less do what they need to do. But in Phnom Penh, that’s where all the artists are.
As SreyNuch said, there are no artists in Siem Reap, it’s all for tourists, it’s all folklore. The tourists don’t want to see art. Tourists want to see happy, laughing, cute Cambodians they can take pictures with. They don’t want to see independent women being real artists.
So in that sense, in Phnom Penh, they all work for the government because that’s the only choice they have if they want to be an artist. To be honest, I’m not optimistic. We are not planning [for] ‘in 10 years’, we did that previously, but I’ll pass the question to Sreynuch, where do you guys want to be in the next year?
Sreynuch: For us, we just want to be better dancers. We’d like to be better artists, and learn from our teachers from around the world, to be able to go out in the next year, even. I’m hoping in the next year, we can perhaps leave and explore —
Ruijzendaal: But most Cambodian artists, and even Southeast Asian artists in general, often go abroad to develop, and I think, for the NCA, they have their own studio, and they can explore what they want. Out there, they have the freedom to work with other dancers, other choreographers, in Japan, Singapore and Bangkok, maybe even in Europe.
AJ: Earlier you spoke about reinventing Apsara, but what does that actually mean, when you say you give your own unique spin?
Sreynuch: To put it on another level, we learn extra techniques, different ones, mixing ballet classes, sword-fighting classes, combining all of these things and use them as a way of putting some energy and feeling into the largely static movements of Apsara. It’s not just movement, but more of moving with meaning and resolve.
Normally you’d have static actions, involving staying in single poses for minutes on end, but our own approach is incorporating a sense of flow into the movements. Unlike traditional Apsara dance, we have a reason to stop. We have the chance to talk, we flit between dialogue and dancing. We have to impart a sense of natural movement to the dancing itself, and take it to another level from there.
Ruijzendaal: In the beginning, we called it Apsara fusion. We found out that was actually quite disturbing. The government don’t want to fuse anything to do with Apsara, you only have that and nothing else. We changed it to contemporary dance theatre with classical influences, which is a very different approach.
Nuch has been to Europe, but Lai hasn’t. Their only contact with contemporary theatre has solely been electronic through watching videos. But they worked through the whole history of contemporary dance, and had teachers coming in to work with them. I’d say that all their movements are still Apsara movements, but there is no flow. They’re merely still, transitioning from movement to movement.
It’s not allowed by the government to allow external choreographers, music or dancers to change Apsara dance. Fusing Apsara movement with Japanese and European influences is still like a new language that they are developing. And that’s what makes them quite unique in Cambodia, and also the world since nobody is quite doing what they are doing. It’s also what allows them to stand out in Cambodia.
The definition of art in Cambodia is very different than what we might be used to in Singapore. In Cambodia, art is simply just to please, never to disrupt anything ever or even to express your personal feelings. Contemporary art is still painting Angkor Wat in purple. Contemporary art is still painting Apsara dancers, but… floating. Love, at most, is coming out on stage with a heart. It’s never an expression of your personal life or your personal ideas. It’s not about expressing your doubts or feelings in life, let alone who you are — in Cambodia, you don’t do that. Not in art. If you go too deep anyway, you go to jail. It is… tricky business.
AJ: As a whole, this has been a very fruitful interview. We’re looking forward to the upcoming performance of Snow Whitening Revisited. Thank you for your time, Bob and the NCA!
Snow Whitening Revisited by the New Cambodian Artists, is available for digital streaming as part of the 2021 edition of the M1 Fringe Festival. The video of the performance will be available to the public from 25th to 31st January 2021. Stay tuned for our upcoming review of their performance!