Breathing new life into traditional Cambodian dance.

Breathing new life into traditional Cambodian dance.

Cambodia
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
Growth
Budget: 
$250,000 - $500,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Khmer Arts Ensemble fosters the vitality of Cambodian dance across borders and engages in the global conversation of arts and ideas through the development and presentation of compelling works of performance and through the training of world class artists. It is a nexus of arts and culture in a community that is endowed with wonderful traditions and that is looking for ways of using those traditions to improve its quality of life.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Cambodia is an impoverished nation with a per capita GDP of $783 (2010). Infrastructures are underdeveloped, there is a lack of access to education, subsistence living is the norm, and gender inequity is pervasive. According to Cambodia’s National Institute of Statistics, in Kandal Province, where the Khmer Arts Ensemble is based, only about 40% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 attend school, 65% of women are literate, and 19% of females are formally employed. For these women, options are few and narrowly focused on the garment industry and tourism. Classical dance is a primarily female tradition. Most graduates of Cambodia’s only performing arts conservatory apply for jobs as civil servants under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Average salaries for such jobs are between $25-50 per month, which are below the average wages of garment factory laborers ($50-60 per month). Even in a poor country like Cambodia, no one can survive on this income. Furthermore, such civil service positions offer little opportunity for growth and development. Though some sectors in Cambodia have seen rapid growth (telecommunications, banking, real estate development, industrial agriculture…), many others have suffered stagnation or decline. The arts played a critical role in the rebuilding of Cambodian culture during the decade following the collapse of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. But the past decade has seen the sale of the National Theater, which was destroyed by fire, and the performing arts campus of the conservatory to developers. (The campus was moved to a remote area on the outskirts of the capital.) Public performances of classical dance are rare and often geared toward invited guests or tourists.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Throughout most of its 1,000+ year history, Cambodian classical dance has been supported by authority (temples, kings, governors, colonial rulers, government ministries…) and, in turn, has celebrated those authorities’ right to rule. Part of this dynamic was economic; only the very wealthy could support a fulltime company of dancers in a poor agricultural nation. Following the 1991 peace accords, which ended decades of isolation, Cambodia embraced laissez faire capitalism and the dance, which had no independent infrastructure or history of entrepreneurship, failed to adapt. As a result, many talented artists have left the field and many of those who remain live in poverty. The country’s official performing arts institutions have suffered from neglect. Compounding the problem is a lack of imagination and energy, which are critical to the success of any art form and which are putting classical dance in danger of becoming nothing more than a museum piece. In 2007, the Khmer Arts Ensemble was established as Cambodia’s first fulltime independent professional classical dance company in order to develop compelling dances that resonate within contemporary Cambodian society as well as in societies around the world and to offer young dancers and musicians sustainable careers. The Ensemble takes a socially conscious entrepreneurial approach to its work, building earned income as a means to insure sustainability, remaining artist–focused and by questioning convention through its practices and creative work.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

The Khmer Arts Ensemble is developing a new model for how the performing arts can thrive in Cambodia’s quickly and unevenly changing society. During the past 4 ½ years, the Khmer Arts Ensemble has offered 42 artists (the majority of whom are women) advanced training in classical dance and music, including courses in dance history, ethnology, movement analysis and international artistic exchanges with professional artists from Bangkok to Philadelphia. The idea has been to turn traditional practitioners into well-rounded artists who are versed in the classical canon and capable of developing new and challenging works of art. The Ensemble has created six new major dances, restaged more than a dozen traditional dances, and presented these works in Cambodia and on major stages around the world, including Amsterdam’s Muziektheater, New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New York’s Joyce Theater, Los Angeles’s Disney Concert Hall, Reunion Island’s (France) La Foire Internationale des Mascareignes and Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival. The project has helped grow the economy for related artisans—including costume and instrument makers—and theatrical technicians and other production staff. It has also provided training for arts administrators, researchers and archivists.
Sustainability

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Cambodia is an impoverished nation with a per capita GDP of $783 (2010). Infrastructures are underdeveloped, there is a lack of access to education, subsistence living is the norm, and gender inequality is pervasive. According to Cambodia’s National Institute of Statistics, in Kandal Province, where the Khmer Arts Ensemble is based, only about 40% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 attend school, 65% of women are literate, and 19% of females are formally employed. For these women, options are few and narrowly focused on the garment industry and tourism. Classical dance is a primarily female tradition. Most graduates of Cambodia’s only performing arts conservatory apply for jobs as civil servants under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Average salaries for such jobs are between $25-50 per month, which are below the average wages of garment factory laborers ($50-60 per month). Even in a poor country like Cambodia, no one can survive on this income. Furthermore, such civil service positions offer little opportunity for growth and development. Though some sectors in Cambodia have seen rapid growth (telecommunications, banking, real estate development, industrial agriculture…), many others have suffered stagnation or decline. The arts played a critical role in the rebuilding of Cambodian culture during the decade following the collapse of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. But the past decade has seen the sale of the National Theater, which was destroyed by fire, and the performing arts campus of the conservatory to developers. (The campus was moved to a remote area on the outskirts of the capital.) Public performances of classical dance are rare and often geared toward invited guests or tourists.
About You
Organization:
Khmer Arts
About You
First Name

John

Last Name

Shapiro

Twitter
About Your Organization
Organization Name

Khmer Arts

Organization Country

, PP

Country where this project is creating social impact

, KL

How long has your organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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Innovation
What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro is an internationally recognized and award-winning choreographer, dancer, vocalist and educator. A childhood survivor of Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields,” Sophiline was a member of the first generation to graduate from the School of Fine Arts (Cambodia’s only professional arts conservatory) after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and, along with her peers, spent the 1980s demonstrating that Cambodian culture is heir to more enduring traditions than auto-genocide. Having come of age during an era when saving the dance was a national priority (perhaps 90 percent of all professionally trained dancers died of disease, starvation or slaughter between 1975 and 1979), she has never lost that sense of urgency regarding the dance and its potential significance in a troubled society.

Today she is Cambodia’s most accomplished choreographer and the only one to have founded her own fulltime company with whom she develops socially engaged original dance works. Her groundbreaking classical dances, which often address issues of morality and identity, have toured to major stages on four continents.

Sophiline is a 2009 recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship, a lifetime honor awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and a USA Knight Fellowship. She was awarded the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture in 2006 and has received Creative Capital, Durfee, Guggenheim and Irvine Dance Fellowships, among many other honors. She lectures and teaches at conferences and universities around the world. Her essays have been published widely.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

The Khmer Arts Ensemble has provided 42 artists (the majority of whom are women) with advanced training in classical dance and music and professional development. The Ensemble’s 29 fulltime members are now performing with unsurpassed quality.

The Ensemble has created six new dances, restaged more than a dozen traditional dances, and presented these works in Cambodia and on major stages around the world, reaching audiences in the tens of thousands.

One measure of success is rates of retention. After its first year, the Ensemble saw an employee turnover of 30 percent, 10 percent after its second and no turnover after its third or fourth years. The reason for the initial high rate and its quick decline is that the Ensemble’s system of year-round rehearsals was too difficult an adjustment for artists who were used to the ad hoc rehearsal system employed by public dance institutions. As the Ensemble replaced departing artists with more eager learners, these new artists came to recognize the benefits of attention to quality and rigorous training.

Other measures of success include critical reviews of the Ensemble’s performances. Since its founding, the Ensemble has received glowing reviews in major newspapers in Cambodia and around the world, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, as well as papers in Europe and Asia.

The Khmer Arts Ensemble takes pride in the fact that it has been able to pay its artists a livable wage with annual increases, currently $200-300 per month. (By comparison, garment factory laborers typically earn $50-60 per month.)

How many people have been impacted by your project?

More than 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

Much of the Khmer Arts Ensemble’s first years has been dedicated to developing skills and a repertory of work. Now it must invest in sharing this work with the public. More regular performance and touring seasons will help increase the Ensemble’s earned income (thereby allowing it to invest more in the artists and the artwork) and its capacity to share its work with audiences.

Domestically, the Ensemble is working to establish the Khmer Arts Festival, an annual multi-week presentation of new dances created by collaborating young artists from multiple disciplines in the capital city of Phnom Penh.
The Ensemble is also developing a marketing strategy for international festivals and overseas theaters, so that foreign touring might reach three months per year on a regular basis.

Sustainability
What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

The independent sector is a relatively new and underdeveloped aspect of the Cambodian arts economy. A handful of NGOs and associations have formed over the last decade that employ different financial models. There is little or no domestic support for this sector, and absolutely no governmental support, so most of it has come from overseas or through earned income from tourism.
Furthermore, there are no fulltime presenters of dance in Phnom Penh and no fully equipped theaters, thereby making public presentations problematic. Complicating matters is a lack of precedent for selling concert tickets. The French Cultural Center, the capital’s most active presenter of performing arts, gives away its tickets for free.

One avenue for funding domestic presentations that the Khmer Arts Ensemble is beginning to explore is corporate sponsorship. Its first festival will take place in 2012.

Earned income from overseas performances is a preferred method of support, and it has represented up to 70 percent of the organization’s income during some years. But the majority of the Ensemble’s touring has been to the US, particularly to American Universities, which have been severely hit by the economic crisis. As a result, the Ensemble is looking to gain a footing in more markets, thereby making it less susceptible to the economic volatility of individual regions.

Tell us about your partnerships

Domestically, the Khmer Arts Ensemble collaborates with other independent sector arts organizations to create opportunities for exchange and for joint presentations. It collaborates with governmental institutions, like the French Cultural Center, the Goethe Institute and the U.S. embassy on international exchanges, conferences and performances. It has ongoing memoranda of understanding with Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

While on tour, it frequently collaborates with universities and educational institutions to present master classes, lectures and demonstrations for the Cambodian diasporic communities as well as the general public.

The Khmer Arts Ensemble is a member of the World Dance Alliance-Asia Pacific, the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society of Dance History Scholars.

Explain your selections

The Khmer Arts Ensemble earns income through performance fees, primarily at overseas festivals and through touring. It also receives contributed income from individuals and foundations in the USA, in recent years these have included Leveraging Investments in Creativity, Multi-Arts Production Fund, National Dance Project, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Spunk Fund, Inc. among others.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

As indicated above, the Khmer Arts Ensemble is creating a strategy for developing domestic corporate support through festival sponsorship.

It’s developing a marketing strategy for promoting itself to overseas festivals and theaters in different regions of the world, particularly within the flourishing economies of Asia. This will include participation in international booking conferences, site visits to theaters and invitations to presenters to visit the Ensemble in Cambodia.

Challenges
Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.

PRIMARY

Inadequate transparency

SECONDARY

Lack of skills/training

TERTIARY

Restrictive cultural norms

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

1. In Cambodia, dancers and musicians often pay bribes to find employment and kickbacks for performance opportunities. The Ensemble accepts no money from its employees and pays a monthly salary on written contracts.

2. Graduates of the National School of Fine Arts suffer from inadequate technical and academic achievement. The Ensemble offers rigorous advanced training in technique and a wide range of enrichment activities.

3. Newly married dancers are often restricted from performing by jealous husbands, robbing them of careers they have trained for most of their lives. The Ensemble encourages dignity and independence. Three of four recently married Ensemble dancers have insisted on maintaining their careers. The fourth left her husband when he refused to let her dance.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.

PRIMARY

SECONDARY

Grown geographic reach: Global

TERTIARY

Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

1. By producing domestic festivals.

2. By marketing the Ensemble to new overseas markets.

3. By collaborating with domestic and overseas institutions to offer Ensemble employees additional educational opportunities, including lighting and media design and arts management.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Government, NGOs/Nonprofits, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

1) The Ensemble participates in annual Ministry of Culture festivals and has led workshops and breakout sessions at Ministry-organized conferences. It has participated in festivals and organized exchanges in collaboration with the French Cultural Center, Goethe Institute and the U.S. embassy.

2) The Ensemble collaborates with local NGOs and associations in the planning and participation of festivals, as well as in the provision of enrichment workshops for Ensemble employees.

3) The Ensemble collaborates with universities on performances and residency activities, including master classes, lectures and community outreach. It is now developing partnerships with domestic and overseas universities to provide educational opportunities for Ensemble employees.

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