A couple of evenings ago, I joined some Emergency staff and friends on an adventure outside of Battambang. It was a pilgrimage of sorts; not typical for me, perhaps, but I went anyway – not for the religion, but for the art. We – aside from me, our convoy was of Swiss, Italian, Khmer, French and Ethiopian origin – were going to attend a dance performance out in the countryside.
The village of Tahen is a ten-minute drive on the highway towards Phnom Penh, followed by an easily-missed turn onto a terribly bumpy, gravelly road; the trees, leaves and roadside detritus all heavily caked with the same hue of dusty brown. The road led us – approximately twenty minutes later – to a large cross suddenly seen hanging high and brightly lit in the night sky. Under the cross sits the Parish of St Joseph, where a Spanish bishop, teachers and volunteers have set up a school and dormitory (for 100 children from the neighboring villages); and where dance, music and arts and crafts programmes are regularly held. The performers, all children and youth members of the church and school, practice two hours daily for the twice-weekly show.
After an introduction (in English) from Lawrence about the church’s mission, we are led to the outdoor stage, and seated at a front-row table laid out with heaps of food and drink. Around us, other tables with a mixture of locals, ex-pats and European visitors.
With talented musicians and singers’ voices booming from the side, the stage is flooded with raw energy and color. Behind the stage, an opening leads to a sanctuary, where a crucifix is affixed and scripture writings (in Khmer) are painted on the wall. There’s a slightly European, terra-cotta-ish feeling about it all.
The dances were far from amateurish, the costumes and props – reflecting traditional Khmer styles – brilliantly designed and executed; a testament to the ongoing renaissance of Khmer cultural traditions in art and dance.
A wide range of themes wove themselves through the night’s show: The blessing dance, coconut dance, crab dance, peacock dance, flute dance and more. One dance symbolically demarcated the dividing line between work (in the field, on looms, fishing on the lakes) and rest; while another reflected the mating rites between fishermen and village women.
At the end, I was surprised at the absence of a rain dance, chalking it up to the fact that we are in the deep throes of the dry season, when rainfall is about as common as a small child wearing a helmet while riding a motorbike (more on that topic another time…)
So imagine my surprise when, awakened early yesterday morning to the shuffling sounds of a percussive instrument (muffled though they were through the thrumming of my unit’s A/C system), and dismayed at the thought, perhaps, of yet another wedding revving into gear, it soon dawned on me that a monsoon-like downpour was under way. Ahhh, what a blessing!