Five Questions for Emmanuele Phuon

Photo by John Vink/ Magnum Photos

The New York premiere of Brussels-based, French-Cambodian choreographer Emmanuèle Phuon’s fascinating collaborative investigation Khmeropédies I & II will be at BAC this week. Over the past two years, she has worked in Cambodia with dancers trained in classical Khmer dance.

I’m very excited about this project, having spent time facilitating exchange projects between SE Asian and Asian American artists in Phnom Penh several years ago for DTW’s Mekong Project.  Cambodian dance is so rich and the focus there is a deep, strict, effort for preservation.  How did you approach making a contemporary work with traditional artists?

As a member of White Oak [from 1995-2001], I was exposed to the work of artists like Lucinda Childs and Yvonne Rainier, among others, which allowed me to know historically important western contemporary ideas from inside in my body. So, when I started the project, every time we worked on a new idea that came from an artist or practice I knew, I would try to share where it came from.  I have many videos and I would show the dancers the tradition that these ideas came from.  For example, when we used Chance, I would show them a Cunningham video so that they understand where it came from. I don’t like this word, because I am also learning so much, but I try to make this whole experience educational. We were looking at how it was done and then the dancers would look at how to apply it to their heritage.  I was trying not go overboard and just force foreign concepts or movements on them.

You have some body knowledge from when you studied at The Royal Ballet of Cambodia as a child too, right? Does that inform you?

I was too little. Some of it is in my body, so I can “fake” it but it doesn’t look anything like it really should.  But, because I have not been trained in it completely, while I love the form and respect it, it isn’t sacred to me.  So, while I have a familiarity, all the meanings of the hands don’t mean as much, which allows me the freedom to deconstruct it.

The Khmer Rouge decimated their country, including the arts and artistic population, so I understand why the effort to resurrect and preserve the traditional forms is so strong in Cambodia.  But, I have seen how that creates a struggle for creative artists.  You mention the freedom from being too sacred with the material. Did the mandate for preservation get in the way for your work?

Well, it is hard because the form is already perfect and it refers to a time when they were grand, so there is a large cultural ego that surrounds it.  So, though I can make whatever work I make and am not bound to uphold the form, there is a lot discomfort with this kind of work there. They need to uphold this beautiful dance, but I’m just playing and am lucky to have four dancers who are willing to play too. It’s very complicated to have something so traditional and try to do something else with it. It’s tricky. It has to do with identity which is a powerful thing.  We were in a festival in Singapore and it was interesting to see performances from India and other countries in the region, and to see that they’re all dealing with the heaviness of tradition and whether to, or how to, evolve. Physically, you can’t just put another technique on top of it; it takes time and work.  We were part of a festival of contemporary dance and we were programmed right next to a Japanese troupe.  They’ve been after it for so much longer than we have, we’re only a few years into our exploration. We felt like dinosaurs, old and outdated. But, without the context of where we are coming from, we won’t fit into the contemporary world in that way. This is something new for Cambodia and I don’t find it interesting to impose my point of view and ideas onto the dancers. It isn’t about me in that way. It’s about them;  the dancers are having an experience. This is a contemporary process that makes sense in the context of strong preservation. As a result, sometimes the work seems naïve or “not contemporary enough,” but it is the process that is most important to me.

How was your process?

I’ve been developing this since 2007, but with these dancers we will have a 3-week residency and then wouldn’t see each other for a year, and then 3 weeks together and then a few months apart and back together. I have had support from the Asian Cultural Council, but my husband is probably my biggest sponsor. It’s expensive to go back and forth and we don’t know if the process will continue. It’s hard because I don’t think of myself as a choreographer; I am a dancer. I’ll go back to dancing for Yvonne Rainier later this summer and while I’ve been thrilled to do this project and I want to continue, I don’t know how to make it happen financially.  I’m learning so much about Cambodia, my own country. And, I want to support the artists.  One of the dancers, Belle, she’s supporting her mother through her dancing. We want to help her do something in dance.  So, my process or experience as an artist is more about the human scale. It’s about slowly changing the mentality, so that these dancers can go back to their community with more information.  Because, while it is so important to have a strong sense of respect for the elders and and for tradition, the backside can be learning by heart and not questioning. It’s the artist’s job to poke it a little bit. I’m not saying make a revolution; it doesn’t have to be political. It can be about beauty. But, if that could shift a little bit, that would be great, because, right now, dance is used primarily for tourists and government official’s visits. It is an instrument of power, but it needs to be dance in its own right.

That is a lot to ask from these dancers. Have they been up to the experience? Are they interested in questioning too?

I originally developed this work at BAC in 2007 and created Khmeropédies I, the solo performed by Chumvan Sodhachivy, on another dancer.  We worked together for 2 months and did a special showing for Sam Miller. After the showing, he was silent – he was the only one there and didn’t feel the need to applaud – so the dancer went down on her knees in front of him and apologized for not smiling, and having no music, and a costume that wasn’t very nice. We had worked for 2 months and I had no idea how uncomfortable she was. So this time, while working, I made sure the process was a dialogue and Khmeropédies II explores the master/disciple relationship, which is the tradition but allows the dancers – Sam Sathya, Chey Chankethya, Phon Sopheap, and Sodhachivy – to play with it.  We use music from the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten to Yves Montand to Tiny Toones (a Cambodian rap group formed by street kids) and it’s okay.  It is clear to me that they like it, they created it and own it, and run with it in performance. So, I feel happy. I believe I have achieved something, because none of the dancers apologize after the show.

Performances are June 24–26 (Thursday and Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm and 7:30pm) at Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Howard Gilman Performance Space. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through SmartTix at 212-868-4444 / The Baryshnikov Arts Center is located at 450 West 37th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues) in New York City.

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