Tales of two countries

Art December 17, 2015 01:00


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Thailand and Cambodia celebrate cultural ties with a dance showcase

Cambodia's Apasara celestial nymph and Thailand’s Benyakai, the daughter of Pipek in the Ramakian, will share the stage on Saturday as the two countries mark 65 years of diplomatic relations.
With less than two weeks until the official launch of the Asean Economic Community, Bangkok is gearing up to clinch its place as the region’s cultural hub. Past of that objective was realised in August with the Culture Ministry’s opening of the Asean Cultural Centre in Bangkok, and it has been hosting exhibitions from our Asean neighbours ever since. Most have been staged at the Bt15-million-centre on the third floor of the Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Centre, but Saturday’s performance sees a change of venue to the National Theatre’s small hall. 
Some 30 dancers and crew from Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and more than 20 dancers from Thailand’s Fine Arts Department will perform.
Cambodian Ambassador Eat Sophea and Culture Minister Veera Rojpojanara are scheduled to discuss their countries’ performing arts and cultural cooperation at the official opening, which starts at 4pm.
Thailand will be first to take the stage with four performances including the khon masked dance, folks dances and martial arts.
The event begins with the rare “Narai Riding Krut” (“Vishnu Riding Garuda”), a traditional rabam created by the Fine Arts Department. The choreography is based on a well-known song in praise of krut in the classical lakhon dance-drama “Unarut”. The krut (garuda) is a mythical giant bird used as the vehicle of the god Narai (Vishnu). Thailand’s reigning Chakri dynasty is believed to be descended from Narai, and the performance is designed to convey this information.
Next is the khon performance “Hanuman Catching Benyakai”, based on “The Floating Lady” episode of the Ramakian. Thotsakan (Ravana), blinded by passion, ponders how to get hold of Phra Ram’s consort Sida (Sita). It beings in the court of Thotsakan, where Thotsakan’s niece Benyakai (Pipek’s daughter) claims that she can transform herself into Sida’s double and thus fool Phra Ram (Rama) and Phra Lak (Laksmana). Thotsakan, king of the demons of Krung Longka, has abducted Sida, and has confined her within his pleasure garden. Phra Ram has gone with an army to lay siege to Krung Longka (Sri Lanka). Thotsakan learns of this and devises a stratagem to prevent war and save his soldiers. The plan is to disguise Benyakai as Sida and send her, pretending to be dead, to float along the river at the front of Phra Ram’s camp so that when Phra Ram comes down to bathe he might be led to think Sida is dead and depart with his army. The plan works, and Phra Ram grieves, but then Hanuman notices that the body of Sida has floated up stream to the camp. He craftily suggests that the body be cremated. When Benyakai escapes this and attempts to fly away, Hanuman gives chase. Caught, she yields to Hanuman’s amorous advances.
The pace is upped in the next show “Martial Arts: Short Stick, Long Stick Fight”, in which the performers showcase their skills in the use of the short sticks. Victory depends on the agility of the fencer who has to take the offensive and always keep close to his adversary. The fencer using the long stick when pitted against a man armed with the short sticks has to back away, otherwise he will not be able to use his long stick effectively.
Thailand’s presentation wraps with the kub-kab folk dance. Centred on a percussion instrument used by musicians in the northeast of Thailand, Roi Et Dramatic Arts College created this dance by combining the playing of the kub-kab with the slow Isaan-style rum pluen movement.
Cambodia then takes the stage with its internationally known “Apsara” dance. In Khmer mythology, all apsara were born from the foam surface of the ocean of milk, when tevoda (heavenly beings) and assura (demons) churned the ocean with gigantic naga in search of the elixir of immortality. The dance portrays Mera, dressed in white for purity, dancing in her garden. She is joined by her hand maidens, also apsara, who produce flowers which express great love for the people and the country.
The troupe continues with the ploy suoy folk dance that has its origins in Kampong Speu province. The ploy is a wind instrument made of gourd and bamboo that is similar to a mouth organ and the dance is associated with legends from India to Southeast Asia, where the unique gourd has given birth to several civilisations. Dancers blow into the mouth organs to recall the origin of time and to resort to the myth of the eternal return.
Khmer cultural heritage is showcased through a traditional harp musical performance, which is followed by the “Krama Khmer” dance. A new dance created by the students and masters of the Royal University of Fine Arts of Cambodia, it celebrates the krama, the traditional scarf that’s used for protecting the head from the sunshine, for taking a bath as well as a blanket, cradle and decoration.
Our neighbours bid farewell with the “Robam Phet” or Fan dance, which represents the blessing of Indra and is traditionally performed to offer respect and best wishes to the Khmer sovereigns. On Saturday, those same sentiments are directed to the audience as well.
  •   “Thai-Cambodian Dances” is being staged at 4pm on Saturday in the National Theatre’s small hall near Thammasat University. Admission is free.
  •  For more information, call (02) 422 8945-7.