The show opened with both performers on opposite corners of the dimly lit stage. While Ny Lai was perched on a high stool upstage, downstage, Khun Sreynuch moved fluidly. Articulating every joint in the body, often going into twisted, contorted positions. As Sreynuch moved towards Lai, they reached out to each other but missed the grip. When a second attempt culminated in a close embrace, it felt as if the world stood still and was safe in that moment. This still image sat in stark contrast to what felt like Sreynuch’s lonesome struggle across the rest of the stage.
Founded in 2012 by Dutch Artistic Director Bob Ruijzendaal, The New Cambodian Artists (NCA) is Cambodia’s first all-female contemporary dance company based in Siem Reap. From a city heavily dependent on tourism and badly hit by the global pandemic, we see these two young cambodian dancers hanging on to each other, figuring out what it means to be female, Cambodian, and a contemporary artist, during these trying times.
As if leaving a refuge, Sreynuch ventured out on all fours, crawling away from Lai and the high stool. She got called back by Lai, who reached to pull her back by the foot. But Sreynuch persisted away. When Sreynuch abruptly fell, Lai rushed towards her like a jumpy insect. Putting her ear to Sreynuch’s arms and torso, Lai frantically tried to revive Sreynuch. Lai’s repeated attempts at pushing Sreynuch’s hips and jumping over her failed, as Sreynuch continued lying motionless on the floor. This sense of helplessness and cataplexy recurred throughout the piece.
In another scene, guttural frenetic whispers filled the air. As the menacing gibberish turned into repeated shrieks and gasps, Sreynuch, dressed in a colorful blazer and red pants, executed a series of frantic movements. She stopped suddenly, paused in a bent over position. Lai tried to lift her head but Sreynuch simply slumped back into the bent over position. But when Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite played, Sreynuch sprang up into a series of energetic movements, layered with intricate finger gestures from the Cambodian Apsara Dance. Perhaps this is what the women feel like — mere puppets. When called to perform (be it gender roles or dancing) one does so instantaneously, well-trained and controlled by external forces. But all the while, on the inside, they are struggling, collapsing.
These women face more than subtle forms of gender violence. They live with the devastating consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s bloody persecution of millions of artists and intellectuals. After lighting joss sticks and performing a prayer, Sreynuch held in her hands photographs of women who were killed in prison during the Khmer Rouge. Holding up each portrait above her head, she released them one by one to the ground. The fallen women remembered and honored.
In another scene, Lai walked out of the shadows, taking small steps, trailing white fabric. With Sreynuch’s help, she put it on. When we think of wedding dress fittings we often think of happy and excited brides; in this scene, Lai looked despondent and downcast as Sreynuch tightened her corset. The blackbox was filled with a somber atmosphere that is more akin to a funeral than a wedding. Sreynuch proceeded to sprinkle white powder on the unwilling bride, shackled by traditional expectations. The snow whitening process had begun. As Lai covered herself completely in white, Sreynuch executed Apsara Dance poses along the trail of white. She performed the steps in the most traditional way throughout the whole show. In the history of Apsara dance, the dancers were similarly covered in white to depersonalise the dancers. The colour white is not just a symbol of purity and innocence, but as Ruijzendaal explained in an earlier interview, being whiter or more fair skinned meant being more marriable.
Snow Whitening Revisited takes on a trajectory where the performers move freely and with reckless abandon, to one where they are encumbered by restrictive societal pressures. Despite creating and performing contemporary art as a mode of self-liberation, these female artists are still confined to conservative gender expectations.
Due to the COVID-19 situation, the NCA worked on Snow Whitening Revisited remotely with Ruijzendaal in Amsterdam and the two classically trained dancers, Khun Sreynuch and Ny Lai, in Siem Reap. Perhaps there is a sense that external intervention accorded these dancers the space to push back at societal restrictions. And while we were still able to access their performance, it was a pity that the screen’s mediation seemed to weaken the power of some raw, emotional moments. Indeed the power of live theatre cannot be replaced by film, just as the imaginary space of the theatre cannot fill all the gaps in our real, lived experiences.
Snow Whitening Revisited by New Cambodian Artists played as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival between 25—31 January 2021.