ARTICLES / Cambodia

The Guardian: “British dancer leaps into action to bring ballet to Cambodia”

Cambodia ballet school Stephen BimsonPHNOM PENH – Cambodia is poised to get its first school of ballet, with a British dancer bringing the discipline to a country more used to traditional folk dance.

Stephen Bimson, 29, who graduated from the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in 2009, is working with a granddaughter of a Cambodian princess to transform a one-bedroom flat into Cambodia’s first ballet studio.

The Central School of Ballet is scheduled to open in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, later this month.

It will look like a ballet studio anywhere – with floor to ceiling mirrors and a changing room.

But most of the classes will be held in the evenings, to avoid the need for an air conditioner. The windows will stay open year-round, and the sound of classical music – or perhaps live piano – will have to compete with the city’s motorcycle traffic.

Bimson admits he hardly knew anything about Cambodia before arriving here as a dance volunteer with Outreach International in 2010.

While working with local NGOs at children’s homes, he organised a contemporary dance project with Cambodian youths. Seven months later, about 100 children mounted a half-hour performance in a park near the river here.

“My plan was that after seven months, I would go back and find my place in dance back in England,” Bimson said. “But I realised that what I want to do is established in England – it’s happening there already. But it’s not happening here.”

Bimson’s business partner is Devi Vanhon, 31, a granddaughter of a Cambodian princess who has loved ballet since she was a teenager.

Vanhon, who grew up in Switzerland and studied law at the University of London – her mother is Swiss – returned to Cambodia as an adult to learn more about the Cambodian side of her family.

But, she says, despite receiving invitations to royal functions, she was able to learn almost nothing about her paternal grandmother, Princess Norodom Thiek, who died in unknown circumstances after the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

Vanhon began studying ballet while living with her mother in northern Thailand. Later, the family moved and there was no money to pay for ballet.

“I thought it was another dream I had to give up,” said Vanhon.

When she met Bimson last September, she was “over-excited” – and decided to help him open a school after discovering that a number of other people in Cambodia were also interested in studying ballet.

“There is an opportunity here to provide something that doesn’t exist,” she said. “Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia have a lot of ballet schools.”

Cambodian student Skyler Ros, 17, who formed a dance group in Phnom Penh with his friends after learning hip-hop from videos on YouTube, is interested in studying ballet because it is something different. “I like it. It’s sexy,” he said.

Before he became a dancer, Bimson rode dressage horses – an activity he described as “ballet on horseback”, because some of the jumps are similar to pirouettes.

While a student at Rambert in Twickenham, he sometimes danced for 11 hours a day, six days a week – and held part-time jobs in bars and theatres to make ends meet.

“You’ve got to be very determined. It’s definitely more than a job for me, it’s a passion,” he said. “I couldn’t see my life without dance.”

After graduation, he decided against a performance career and instead became interested in teaching dance to people with disabilities – he once performed a duet with a wheelchair user – and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Being on a stage and having hundreds of people watch them perform is very empowering for children, he said.

In addition to the dance studio, Bimson wants to set up an outreach project working with children from orphanages, to make ballet accessible to Cambodians outside of the upper income bracket.

“I don’t want to become an exclusive dance establishment,” he said.


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