Passion Points: Arts/Culture
Fred Frumberg is a producer who prefers being backstage while bringing glorious performances to life in the spotlight. For years, he worked at Europe’s big opera houses, assisting such directors as Peter Sellers, Francesca Zambello and Deborah Warner. In 1994, he traveled to Cambodia as a consultant with UNESCO, to study what could be done about preserving the country’s struggling performing arts scene. A one-year commitment turned into thirteen, and today Frumberg is based in Phnom Penh, home to the non-profit organization founded in 2003. Amrita Performing Arts (www.amritaperformingarts.org) works closely with dancers, actors, musicians and puppeteers, striving to keep alive such ancient arts as Khmer dancing, while also nurturing a new generation of contemporary performers.
Recently, Amrita sponsored a tour of four Cambodian dancers who visited New York and performed at the Baryshnikov Art Center in Manhattan. The opening night of the piece, choreographed by Cambodia-born Emmanuele Phuon, drew an eclectic crowd of dance lovers, including members of the prestigious White Oak Dance Project, the actor Matt Dillon and arts patron Anne Bass (Frumberg is interviewed in Bass’ documentary Dancing Across Borders about a young Cambodian dancer). The last minutes of the show saw legendary Sam Sathya in a breathtaking solo, merging traditional Cambodian movements with Western-style contemporary dance. As the lights dimmed around her delicate movements and the last notes of music faded, the room erupted into roaring applause—and Frumberg looked on proudly from the theater’s shadows. He spoke to Indagare about Amrita and his vision for the future.
How has Amrita evolved since its inception?
In the earlier days, Amrita worked on all forms of Cambodian performing arts of which there are twenty forms of music, dance, theater and puppetry. The first period focused entirely on revival and preservation; not necessarily creating work that would tour. In the last few years, we have recognized a momentum in the general process of revival and preservation through the efforts of numerous organizations, so we decided to shift our focus to contemporary performing arts as a means of building creativity among the young generation of artists.
What are the major challenges facing Cambodian performing arts today?
The situation remains precarious for all of the forms, given the lack of funding and a somewhat dysfunctional government, and yet in the greater picture, the situation has improved and it’s important for smaller organizations such as Amrita to narrow its focus and mission, and work within its professional and financial means.
What are your thoughts on working on the preservation of ancient art forms while also nurturing a new generation of performers?
The dialogue between past and future remains fragile. The process of revival and preservation is a high priority for the elder masters, who represent the ten percent of artists who survived the Khmer Rouge period. They often look at contemporary work as a threat to this process. At Amrita, we spent a lot of time assuring them how feeding the young generation of artists with fervor and pride will make them take responsibility, ensuring that the classics live into the future. The performing arts cannot just be a recorded testimony to years of revival and preservation; it must be part of a living culture and to that end, the classics must continue to thrive hand-in-hand with contemporary creativity.
Can you talk a little about the four dancers you brought to New York recently with Amrita?
They’re some of our finest classical dancers. Sathya is a master who graduated from the first class after the fall of the Khmer Rouge; the three younger ones all studied under her and are now teachers in their own right. They all began training between the ages of six and eight, and have made a commitment to uphold their traditions while embarking on this challenging path of contemporary creativity. The financial challenges facing them are enormous: professional dance teachers only earn around $60 a month, so they need to augment with other odd jobs to help support their families.
What do you think of Anne Bass’ documentary Dancing Across Borders?
I produced the young dancer’s Cambodian debut as a classical ballet dancer, so Anne interviewed me for the film. Mostly I think the film does a very good job at highlighting the numerous bridges between western and Cambodian cultural aesthetics that we are all looking at through various lenses.
Do you think a concept like Amrita would work in other Asian countries to preserve a cultural heritage while also investing in future performers?
Many countries in Asia are dealing with the same fragile balancing act, however, most of them have the technical production expertise that they don’t need outside assistance. Exceptions might be Laos and Burma, then there are a number of options in Africa.
What is your wish for the future for Amrita?
I can only hope that the current momentum will continue and that Cambodia will own its rightful place on the world stage and be taken seriously in its profoundly artistic terms, and not out of pity for its tragic history. It’s time for Cambodia to move beyond tragedy and celebrate the miracle of its resurgence that comes entirely from the Cambodians themselves, with some assistance from outside players.
Amrita has U.S. non-profit status and all donations are tax deductable. To donate to this special organization, visit: www.amritaperformingarts.org.
Read about Indagare member Tiffany Schauer’s trip to Phnom Penh
Read about Tiffany’s impressions of Amrita.
Read about Fred Frumberg’s advice on where to eat and shop in Phnom Penh.
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