A beautiful masculinity – Melissa Coade for Amrita

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Noun Sovitou and Nget Rady performing in Brodal Serei. Picture by Anders Jiras.

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.

Melissa Coade is a young professional who has spent 2015 based in Phnom Penh. While living in Cambodia her most rewarding pursuit has been learning the Chapey Dang Veng and wherever possible connecting with the Khmer Arts. She is originally from Sydney, Australia.
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Our Artistic Director in her latest artistic collaboration – Soil

Photo by Michael Sakamoto

Photo by Michael Sakamoto

Our Artistic Director Chey Chankethya just finished her series of showcases held at the University of Iowa for her latest collaboration Soil, an intercultural dance theater trio conceived and directed by Michael Sakamoto. The piece is co-written and co-choreographed with the performers: Cambodian classical dancer Chey Chankethya, Thai traditional and contemporary dancer Waewdao Sirisook, and Vietnamese-American contemporary dancer Nguyen Nguyen. Soil explores crisis in three Southeast Asian cultures and transnational, East-West identity through the dancers’ personal narratives. The next time the artists will collaborate will be in 2016 with the hope to start touring the piece in 2017 in america and then in Asia. She is sharing her experience with us: “Working on that helped me deepen my understanding of Cambodian social, political and historical context. I did enjoy the process however it was very depressing sometimes.”

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Photo by Michael Sakamoto

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Yon Davy – Korean Residency at the Asia Culture Center

“I have learnt a lot from this residency, like how to communicate with other international professional artists from different fields. I think I have also learnt how to manage a budget. But the most important skill I have developed is to learn how to talk about my work to create interest in people, which is crucial to initiate collaboration.

It gave me the opportunity to meet and collaborate with a Korean visual artist named Eunji Cho. Some of my pictures are part of her exhibition which started on November 25th at the Asia Culture Center. Our collaboration will not stop there as she is planning on coming to Cambodia this month to do research and wants to develop her work.”

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Photo by Eunji Cho

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Noun Sovitou, one of Brodal Serei’s dancers

© John Vink / Magnum Photos

© John Vink / Magnum Photos

“It was not difficult for me to train with Hem Saran, the professional boxer who taught us basic moves of Brodal Serei, as I am trained in traditional Khmer martial arts. What I found challenging in this project was to understand and convey the right balance between the sport, the athlete’s personal story and the art of dancing.”

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Khon Chan Sithyka, one of Brodal Serei’s dancers

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© John Vink / Magnum Photos

“When I was young, my house was next to the old stadium where boxers trained, so I could go and watch them. When Emmanuèle Phuon asked me to join her Brodal Serei project, we all practiced with professional boxers. As soon as I joined, I realized boxing is not as easy as it seems. The most challenging part for me was to incorporate the daily routine of boxers in my dance moves. I used to fight during high school so combining dancing and boxing is good to me. I think what I have learnt about the boxing world is that being a boxer is not easy but their life is fascinating.”

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Nget Rady, one of Brodal Serei’s dancers

“Before I started Brodal Serei I was learning Kun Khmer. It seemed similar at first. Then we started Brodal Serei‘s project and we joined Brodal class for a month. I was the one facing the most difficulties among the three dancers, despite knowing Kun Khmer. The character we have to embody for Brodal Serei is very different to me, reflecting daily life’s moves whereas Kun Khmer is all about dance and showing the phrase of the movement. Day after day, I implied myself  as much as I could to get into the boxer’s character, confident, proud and strong, to the point of looking intimidating and sometimes almost aggressive. It is challenging for me but with hard-work I could get it, even becoming a different person during the dance.”

© John Vink / Magnum Photos

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Lim How Ngeang the Dramaturge

10271398_10152471415832975_3494832987432524139_oLim How Ngean has been regularly dramaturging for Phonm Penh-based Amrita Performing Arts Group with Belgium-based choreographer Emmanuele Phuon on Brodal Serei‘s project. His expertise has enabled our artists to convey Brodal Serei’s personal story of a Khmer boxer by various means rather than only using body language, weaving dance, drama and storytelling.

Lim How Ngean is an independent dramaturg, producer and performance-maker. He was conferred his PhD from the National University of Singapore in 2014. His thesis, Choreographic Modernities: Movement, Mobility and Contemporary Dance from Southeast Asia, focused on case studies of choreographers from Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. He was awarded the British Council Chevening Scholarship in 2007 to study his MA in Royal Holloway London where his dissertation focused on Malaysian contemporary choreographer Marion D’Cruz. With over 20 years in performance experience, he has performed in productions by Singapore’s Ong Keng Sen and the late Malaysian Krishen Jit. His initiation into contemporary dance began in 2006 as a research fellow in Tokyo under the Asian Public Intellectual programme by Nippon Foundation. In 2009, he was invited by the Asia Europe Foundation (ASEF) as dramaturge/documentarian for the dance exchange Pointe to Point. How Ngean has dramaturged for choreographers Daniel Kok, Joavien Ng, Kuik Swee Boon and Ming Poon from Singapore, and Pichet Klunchun in Thailand.  In 2015, he initiated the Asian Dramaturgs Network (ADN) with Singapore-based Centre 42, where the inaugural meeting/symposium will be held in April 2016.

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