Siem Reap is best known to tourists in Cambodia as the city nearest Angkor Wat, the massive 12th century temple complex that draws over two million visitors a year.
Despite the hype, art to be found in Siem Reap is far more diverse than ancient carvings and soaring stone structures.
Nestled back in the calm residential streets of the city is the new dance studio of the New Cambodian Artists. The group is currently made up of five female dancers who train in both classical Cambodian dance, known as Apsara dance, and contemporary dance, inspired by modern dance methodologies of the Western cannon. They describe their style as “Apsara fusion”.
Their unique medley of traditional Cambodian movement and authentic improvisation is mesmerizing and the young dancers — four of the group are full-time students — perform with the confidence, calm abandon and focus of seasoned performers. Invited into the studio to watch a rehearsal, I was convinced the piece I was witnessing was company repertoire, something performed countless times. Instead, what I saw was created on the spot, a piece of electric, living art.
The Founder and Artistic Director of the New Cambodian Artists is Bob Ruijzendaal, an artist originally from the Netherlands, who has worked in theater for decades. He recognized that dancers in the city of Siem Reap needed a space to develop as artists. With little funding available from the Cambodian government to develop and sustain new dance companies, performance art in Siem Reap is often geared toward tourists. A new kind of organization was needed. 10 dancers came together to form the New Cambodian Artists.
The company has grown since then, with dancers now focusing on the mission of empowering women through dance. “We think it’s very important to spread this message and spread the new art form as well,” said Company Leader, Khong Srey Neang. The first piece the company created commenting on the status of women in the country was called Swept Away. The piece tells the story of women bound by expectation and tradition to work in the home who dream of other opportunities. In 2016, the company worked with a visiting choreographer to create a piece about domestic violence in partnership with the Dignity Project through the Phnom Penh-based nonprofit, CEDAW. The company also recently performed during UN Women's He for She Arts Week in Bangkok, Thailand.
The New Cambodian Artists presents a platform for expression, creativity and growth for young artists in Siem Reap. “We hope we can create something to benefit society,” said Neang. Despite the negative stigma sometimes associated with pursuing dance outside of the classical tradition in Cambodia, there is power to be found in the diligence and discipline of working for a dream. The company also maintains a focus on education and learning with the dancers working with select visiting choreographers to explore new movement styles. “If they are strong,” said Neang, “they can be role models. If they become role models, more people, especially young women, can look up to them.”