In the cool shadows of a modest theatre three men shuffle, lunge and swerve with hypnotic artistry. The contortion of their bare arms and torsos imitate the ‘physical gestures of Khmer boxing vocabulary’ in an elegant portrayal of the fighter’s psyche and colours of his every day. Exquisitely choreographed ‘Brodal Serei’ is named after the traditional form of Cambodian freestyle boxing, whose culture and context is paid homage in a performance of beautiful macho-in-slow-motion.
Starting with the playful intensity of a training hall, competitors flip and turn truck tyres, step into jump rope regimes, jibe and jump on one another with boisterous fondness. It is an exclusive world characterised by class and a distinctively masculine energy. This contemporary dance is a mirrored reality punctuated by fluid impressions of hocking spit and hiking the waist-band of sports shorts.
Set against the colloquial narration of a boxer’s dream, the show draws meaning from a fighter’s visions of his own losses and wins. He speaks of fearlessly throwing punches and pain endured ringside, with fresh gashes stitched sans anaesthetic. The fighter’s wife is also given voice. Her account wavers with the weight of concerns about rising costs of city-living and her partner’s diminishing stamina in age. She yearns for a livelihood that does not bank on her husband’s consciousness or the meagre income of hers’ alone.
Brodal Serei is an honest commentary about an almost-spiritual commitment to the sport and a fighter’s shifting loyalties to his competing influencers. The boxing master, competitors and local bookies step on and off the stage with the moving tone of a hushed monologue. Teachings of the fighter’s revered master, whose disciplined instruction pull him from a destined gang-life and the hangover of being born poor, is overshadowed by desperation for money in an expensive city. Urban hunger devours the purity of martial art as the fighter is lured into throwing matches for quick cash.
A special portion of the program is also dedicated to spiritual customs and rituals associated with the sport. Set to the trance-like tempo of a traditional instrumental duo, two fighters heave, exhausted and disoriented. Their slight bodies are thrown against opposite walls of the theatre stage. They turn in convincing spells and the lights dim to near-black as the magical spirit of Brodal Serei unfurls. Fists clasping chalk, they writhe and skirmish on the floor as if possessed, marking the stage with curly characters of Khmer script. One fighter uses black ink to draw a protective yantra on his right thigh. The prominent shadow of the master, softly chanting prayers for protection and strength, is cast up onto large a hand-painted billboard of two boxers and the sounds of Cambodian flute and drums breathe soul into this protracted, frenetic contemporary dance.
The ancient Cambodian martial arts of Bokator and Yutakhun Khom, whose almost-lost remnants are enjoying reimagined popularity among modern-day boxers and artists alike, have been done great justice in this latest offering by Amrita Performing Arts and Tomorrow dances asbl. The performance was conceived and choreographed by French-Cambodian Emmanuèle Phuon, whose recorded interviews with Phnom Penh boxer Him Saran feature in the narration of the fighter’s dream. Pre-show news coverage describe Brodal Serei as a “biographical dance based on… conversations and friendship with with Saran, who Ms. Phuon befriended while observing boxers at Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium.” (Cambodia Daily, 17 December). The end product is magnetic, raw and real – rather like Cambodia herself – with visitors left wanting more; many more rounds of the sometimes dark magical and animated spirits that this performance evokes.
It is a strange thing to say about a dance, which weaves dreaming with blood-sports, but I left the theatre of Cambodia’s Department of Performing Arts feeling as though I had experienced the rare privilege of deep cultural insight (and all within the space of an hour). I am now resolved to see a real-life Brodal Serei match before leaving Phnom Penh. Fittingly, the next live match will be held on Saturday 26th December 2015 – Boxing Day.
To all those who find themselves in Cambodia, I cannot recommend seeing one of Amrita’s performances enough. I give this performance more stars than all those a knocked-out fighter sees coming-to.