SIEM REAP, Cambodia — The sun sets, the stage lights turn on, and the conversations pause. We line up along the railings of the traditional Khmer wooden house, looking down from the stilted patio, and wait. A beat begins as three dancers emerge onto the garden stage. Their movements are somehow both modern and ancient; choreographed animalistic gestures and primal grunts. The rain dance has begun.
There are six dancers, half of whom wear a “Rainmaker” — a poncho emblazoned with an upside-down triangle of golden symbols on the back. The poncho is designed by Florian Gleich — a German conceptual designer — and Japanese artist Kayoko Yonaga, a couple who are now based in Siem Reap. They are the co-instigators behind the event, Creation 1, as well as the occupants of Est, the home hosting the performance. This is the beginning of the space’s public programming, with rumors of more events in the near future.
Creation 1, which served as a fundraiser for Water on Wheels, featured ink drawings by Ukrainian artist Zhenya Katashynska culled from her two years of travels, including many from her time in Cambodia. In the center of the exhibition space, next to the Rainmaker ponchos, the installation also included jewelry by Yonaga and Khmer artist Seavyi Yonn.
The next Creation event will feature a Russian artist, a Russian reggae jazz band, a photo installation, and some products. “[In June] we will start skill sharing events for young Cambodians to talk about art, design, creativity, and how to survive in business.” Gleich told me. “We hope we can encourage Cambodians to work with us on more creations.” These projects will be partially funded by Gleich and Yonaga’s design and advertising work, which Est also houses.
The performance was undoubtedly the highlight of the night. The Khmer dancers were from Cambodia Star Academy (CSA), a Siem Reap-based music and dance studio and production house. Gleich and Yonaga approached CSA with the design and concept for the Rainmaker performance and a collaboration was born. “We sat down with them twice to rehearse and adjust,” Gleich told me, “but beside this, the dance and the music itself was created by CSA.”
The Rainmaker performance and Gleich’s namesake poncho drew inspiration from various traditional rain dances, mostly from Cambodia but also beyond. The golden symbols on the ponchos are suggestive of various alphabets and symbol systems; pictured the Khmer alphabet fused with Icelandic runes. Gleich and Yonaga couldn’t have planned this event for a more opportune time. This hot season, Cambodia has been facing what might just be its worst drought in 50 years, with three quarters of all provinces declaring a water shortage. Just now, the rains are finally coming.
The Rainmaker performance was a first for me in Cambodia. While there are live traditional dances nightly in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and the TV is filled with Cambodian singers doing contemporary dancing, finding a contemporary and conceptual blend of the two has proven difficult. With the severe black poncho, the symbols and performance made a powerful triad of tradition, contemporary imagining, and functionality. The only dance troupe I know in the country focusing on this melding are the New Cambodian Artists.
“I think the dance was a good idea,” Male Puth, a local photographer who was also in the audience for the May 21 event, told me. “They mixed Khmer folk dance rituals by shamans with modern dance. It preserves old dance and accepts that new things can come together.” He added: “In Cambodia, we really want to see more performances like this.”