In just four years, Pol Pot’s brutal regime almost managed to wipe out centuries of Cambodian arts. From 1975 to 1979, he led a genocide that nearly obliterated the intelligentsia, with his Khmer Rouge killing off an estimated 90 percent of the country’s artists.
That Cambodia’s music and dance endure today is a testament to the will of the 10 percent who lived to pass on the ancient forms. And in that survival, Toronto interdisciplinary artist Peter Chin has found rich material for his multimedia work Transmission of the Invisible.
“As a dance artist, that’s very inspiring to me, because here in the West we are always trying to make a case for the arts, and there it’s a matter of life and death,” the artistic director of Tribal Crackling Wind tells the Straight from his office in Toronto, before heading to Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival for shows January 29 to 31 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. “Everyone has lost someone. After the war was over, they sought each other out—even as Phnom Penh was in shambles.”
The direct inspiration for Transmission came in 2003, when Chin spent five months researching Cambodian art forms, and especially the revival of dance after the Pol Pot regime. Chin was in Phnom Penh, watching teachers showing young students the techniques of classical dance.
“You just knew that these older teachers were survivors. They were passing on much more than the steps or the choreography; they were passing on the spirit of the Khmer culture,” Chin says, referring to the ancient, advanced society best known for erecting the vast temple city of Angkor Wat. “That was interesting to me—to start thinking about the invisible ways that we pass things on to one another, things that are more spiritual, through dance.”
Chin set out to create a work that would combine two Cambodian dancers from Phnom Penh’s Amrita Performing Arts with three of his own, and made several more sojourns to the country in what would become a life-altering project for all involved.
Video artist Cylla von Tiedemann and sound artist Garnet Willis made trips to capture the images and audio that are integrated into the show. The dancers came to collaborate with Cambodian artists, visit places like the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and perform a work-in-progress. All the while, they kept journals, whose entries have become spoken-word elements in Transmission.
“There was a lot of emotional reaction for them—everything on top of the usual culture shock,” Chin recalls. “I was really interested in the process of being a foreigner and trying to enter a culture as deeply as possible.”
The resulting show pays homage to Cambodia’s highly stylized dance and otherworldly music amid abstract contemporary movement. Chin, whose background spans composition, visual art, and dance, has created a multisensory pastiche of projected video images (dance teachers instructing students, jungle foliage) and recorded sounds (traffic noises, traditional drumming). “It’s outwardly high tech but the essence is something ancient,” Chin explains
Although it grew out of one of the 20th century’s darkest periods, Transmission of the Invisible ends up carrying a message of hope. “It’s not about genocide,” stresses Chin, who is in the midst of trying to raise funds to take the work back to Cambodia this fall. “It’s about rebuilding art and rebuilding culture after a rupture.”