A woman, fierce and fluid, is dancing to Tom Waits and a shrieking angle-grinder. She moves through spangled golden light: builders’ dust, caught in the strong Cambodian sun which pours through the open doors at the back of the theatre. We’ve driven through dusty backstreets to find this place, the first black-box theatre in Cambodia, purpose-built for contemporary dance company New Cambodian Artists. The six-year-old, all-female troupe embraces the empowerment of women through expression, but after everything we’ve seen, we’re not prepared for Tom Waits.
‘The girls have been choosing their own music,’ choreographer Bob Ruijzendaal cheerfully explains to us, over the whine of the machinery next door (company manager Khun Sreyneang is finally getting her own office - which she has had painted a good feminist lavender, her favourite colour). ‘We used to do this routine about death to Arvo Pärt, but then one of the girls brought in this song - now we have a whole Tom Waits set!’
And indeed they do - it is by turns haunting, beautiful, darkly funny, and sad. Bob is enthusiastic about the dancers and Sreyneang, and he has a lot to tell us about the company’s attempt to do something new in Cambodia, to challenge traditional roles and forms of expression for women, and to create true professionals with their own marked artistic identities. Bob tell us the women’s individuality and strength is often criticised as arrogant in the Cambodian environment, but he says they’re not arrogant, they just know who they are. We’re fascinated, but the women have clearly heard it all before and only want to get back to their dancing. There’s a seriousness, an edge to this company and these women that’s thrilling to be near. What a pity we’re not here for one of their regular Saturday night shows.
It’s been a day of privileged glimpses backstage. Our Wednesday morning began in a familiar environment - the Rambutan Siem Reap, to catch up with General Manager Tommy Bekaert. We’re keen to get his insights into the local LGBT scene. We stayed ten magic days here in 2016, but this time we’re learning about life from Tommy’s point of view. This trip, more than ever, we appreciate that the Rambutan staff have excellent English. Tommy tells us that university training is on offer for all their staff. There’s a common career progression: Khmer with no English start as night-time security so they can study English during the day. After a couple of years, they graduate to the breakfast team and continue their daytime studies. A couple more years and they’re ready to move into any one of the other positions - the welcome team, administration, etc. Rambutan’s newsletter is always announcing the graduation of some staff member or other from university, not just with English, but degrees in hospitality or business.
Tertiary education in Cambodia is generally paid for by the student - government scholarships are available, but only for the brightest. No wonder the Rambutan staff are so loyal and the place feels like a family; people are here for the long haul. And they throw a mean Pride pool party as well.
We’re reluctant to haul ourselves out of the Rambutan’s comfy couches but our next stop is the Bambu Stage - really a series of stages, purpose-built and flexible for a variety of shows (and meteorologies). Visiting Bambu Stage in the daylight is like going backstage in a theatre; all the ropes and pulleys, usually masked by darkness and leaping firelight, are naked to the eye. Nick Coffill - another Aussie - emerges from one of the many clumps of bamboo shielding parts of the property and apologises disarmingly for his theatre’s daylight garb. He shows us round the ingenious set-up and the various configurations to accommodate everything from live music to shadow puppetry, to fine weather to storms, small crowds or large. We learn about the company structure too; places such as Bambu Stage provide forums both for traditional Khmer art to survive and platforms for new Khmer art to develop, all while paying the artists some kind of wage.
Nick is a veteran producer and a half hour’s conversation with him turns up several interesting venues around town, including New Cambodia Artists’ purpose-built theatre. There’s also the Centre for Khmer Studies in Wat Damnak. Nick joins us to visit it, directing our driver Mr Sareth in what sounds like the most fluent Khmer we’ve heard a westerner speak so far. His love for the Wat and appreciation for the instant peace its grounds bestow is evident. We feel the same way, and are grateful for his help as he introduces us to the staff at the Khmer Studies Centre and gains us entry to their conference hall, a modest French colonial building on the grounds of the Wat that would make a choir sound like a million bucks. Nick is the only expat we’ve met who hasn’t spun us a romantic tale of love-at-first-site with Siem Reap, wielding instead a more cynical outlook, but we can tell his respect for the place and its people runs deep.
We think of the planning permissions that would be required to construct a new stage or performance space in Sydney, of the years it would take and the money it would cost. Performers like the New Cambodian Artists will spend the bulk of their developmental period in a space purpose-built just for them, by people who seek to plug the many gaps in the artistic market since the Khmer Rouge. And they have stories to tell; the question remains, will the world listen?