Thursday, 7 February 2008

Inspired by a culture's tragic past

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
February 6, 2008

Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge regime may have lasted just four years, but an estimated two million Cambodians perished from 1975 to 1979. The victims included 90 per cent of the country's artists, who died either by execution or through starvation or forced labour. The point of departure for Toronto choreographer Peter Chin's new work The Transmission of the Invisible is both the painful loss and the remarkable reconstruction of Cambodia's cultural history.

Says Chin: "Cambodia has always been an alluring enigma to me. I had an intuition that I could make a strong artistic connection there, even though I had no specific project in mind. The traditions and customs were foreign, and I didn't understand the language, but I knew I could bypass all that and allow something important to filter through. It was the country's beautiful and fractured culture that insinuated itself into me."

In 1990, a Canada Council study grant took Chin, Jamaican-born and of Chinese, African and Irish heritage, to Indonesia. His resulting love affair with Southeast Asia has since led to more than 10 multidisciplinary and multicultural dance works, and he now spends at least four months of each year in the region Asia teaching, performing and creating.

Chin's first visit to Cambodia was a 2003 residency at Phnom Penh's Royal University of Fine Arts, where he studied Khmer dance and music, and Angkor architecture. It was there that what he calls "the palpable and ineffable" quality of Cambodian culture seeped into his creative imagination.

The title of his new work, The Transmission of the Invisible, refers to those artistic experiences beyond words that we somehow share, and how culture is transmitted and transmuted through invisible communication.

"My focus in this piece," he says, "is the strength of the human spirit and how it can transcend a tragic past to rebuild for the future. What is happening now in Cambodia is vivid, dramatic and emotional, and overshadows dwelling on what was lost. In the dance, the dark side is the archeology, and the present is the light."

Three years in the making, Chin's multimedia extravaganza is being performed by Tribal Cracking Wind, three Canadian dancers (Heidi Strauss, Andrea Nann and Louis Laberge-Côté) who travelled to Cambodia with Chin to rehearse in 2006 and two Cambodian dancers added there (Phon Sopheap and Yim Savann) against the backdrop of Cylla von Tiedemann's video projections and the music/sound design co-composed by Chin and Garnet Willis.

Chin was extremely moved by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh's essay describing the stunning impact of arts performances in 1980 in Phnom Penh, the first following the fall of Pol Pot's regime. As Chin describes it, the entire audience burst into cathartic tears because they felt their ancient heritage had been returned to them.

"When the artists disappeared under the Khmer Rouge, the repertory vanished with them," Chin explains. "To reconstruct the dances and the music ... the dean of fine arts at the Royal University had to scour the country to find the few artists who were still in hiding. The dean is a key figure in the rebuilding and he survived the Khmer Rouge by pretending to be mentally challenged."

Another seminal event for Chin was watching a dance class by a teacher who had hidden her artistic roots by working as a labourer. "There was an urgency in her gestures, as if she were literally pushing the essence of Khmer culture into her students' bodies." Chin was also intrigued to find out that in Cambodia, students pray to ancestral teachers, and there are stories of students being taken over by the dead, who then teach the ancient arts traditions through them.
An important community partner was a psychologist whose family escaped the Khmer Rouge by fleeing to Holland and who is now back in Cambodia working with traumatized children. Chin's creative process for the piece developed through discussions with her, and particularly memorable, says videographer von Tiedemann, are the children themselves.

Before going to Cambodia, Chin had his Canadian dancers write down their expectations of what they might find there. One of their first cultural experiences was literally dancing in the streets of Phnom Penh before surprised onlookers, which von Tiedemann captured on her camera. Chin also had the dancers keep journals, and used these impressions of the country as well in the evolution of the work.

The two Cambodian dancers, Phon and Yim, both come from families, one military, the other artistic, that had to hide their true backgrounds during the Khmer Rouge years. Trained in the traditional Khmer arts, they were suggested to Chin because they had taken Western dance workshops as well. In Canada for the world premiere of the work, they have now had their first toboggan ride and a walk in the winter woods.

Says Phon: "I hope the piece shows the sadness of a country that was destroyed, but also the pride we feel in our arts."

In their contributions of video and sound, Von Tiedemann and Willis describe the full-sensory assault that is Cambodia. Says Willis: "Peter warned me that there was never any silence, and in truth, you were always hearing something. It was sound that was infusive, you couldn't take anything for granted. You could literally feel the excitement and energy of a country springing into the future."

The two recorded in the cities and the jungles, and it is these impressions, manipulated in the editing room, that create the environment for the dance. Says von Tiedemann: "The tapestry is a mixture of mood, people and documentary. But in this beauty, there is also a spice, a sharpness, a rawness, because it is a culture of extremes, of meditation and vibrancy, of chaos and harmony."

For Chin, there was a poignant lesson from creating The Transmission of the Invisible. "In North America, we are always having to make a case for the arts as being integral to life. When that festival happened in 1980, the Cambodian people knew that their spirit was in those dances. No one in Cambodia has to advocate for the importance of the arts."

The world premiere of The Transmission of the Invisible opens tonight and runs through Saturday at Harbourfront's Enwave Theatre in Toronto

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