From November into early December I joined my friend, Mary-Anne Bartlett and an international group of artists for an unforgettable trip to Cambodia. We travelled from the amazing temples; Angkor Wat and those in the surrounding area, through Battambang, Phnom Penh and to the sea. I also visited a hospital and several health clinics on this trip - but that is another story!
I was deeply moved by the gentleness of the Cambodian people, and the fact that there were very few elderly people. The reality of the horrors of the genocide years of the Khamer Rouge and Pol Pot made me realise that though we were somewhat aware of what was going on in those terrible years, I didn't even begin to grasp the full extent of it.
We visited several wonderful arts schools, where dance, theatre, music and circus skills are being taught to talented young people, often from impoverished backgrounds. The arts are once again being brought alive in this small courageous country. In Battambang we were able to watch and draw the circus students from Phare Ponleu Selpak in an an awesome practice session. Phare Ponleu Selpak, (The brightness of the arts) is an NGO which gathers students from challenging social and economic backgrounds; teaching local children through visual art, music, theatre and circus skills, to rise above poverty and to empower them to build a better future through arts therapy.
SKETCHBOOK DRAWINGS FROM PHARE PONLEU SELPAK
FISHING DANCE. A sketch drawn during a stunning performance by the students of the Khmer Dance School, Phnom Penh.
Khmer classical dance was born as a form of ritual prayer among the sandstone temples of ancient Angkor (9th-15th centuries C.E.). Nurtured in the court as a form of entertainment for centuries, new non-narrative dances became emblems of Cambodia’s newfound nationalism in the wake of the country’s 1953 independence from French colonial rule. During the reign of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), the dance was banned and most of its practitioners died of disease, overwork, starvation and slaughter. In the aftermath, surviving artists in Phnom Penh struggled to rebuild the tradition as part of the newly formed Department of Performing Arts and the reopened School of Fine Arts. Outside of Cambodia, refugees in camps along the Thai border practiced and performed the dance and brought it with them to the communities where they resettled, including those in the U.S.A., France, Canada and Australia. Within the diaspora, the dance became an egalitarian symbol of heritage and pride.