Dancing on the Edge

Strap: Anti-illusionist theatre and traditional Cambodian dance combine as two creative powerhouses reimagine the iconic Madison dance in their latest performance.

Words: Sotheavy Nou

When two seasoned choreographers take a classic dance imbued in Khmer culture with contemporary and avant-garde styles, magic unfolds. Enter ‘Madison Now.’ Lead by director-choreographer Michael Laub and Cambodian dancer-choreographer Vanthy Khen, this groundbreaking showcase slated for the beginning of March promises to redefine Cambodian dance in ways that defy convention. With original compositions and unexpected performances, this project serves as a vibrant awakening to the essence of dance, all while celebrating the timeless allure of passion and joy.

Photo by Oyen Rodriguez
Photo by Oyen Rodriguez

Michael Laub, a pioneering figure in avant-garde stage direction, contemporary dance choreography, and video art, brings decades of artistic expertise to this latest showcase. His groundbreaking work has been featured at prestigious events worldwide, and his minimalist approach and innovative productions have captivated audiences around the globe. Michael has graced esteemed platforms such as the Venice Biennale of 1984, the Festival d’Avignon of 2005, and the Burgtheater in 2011. His avant-garde works have also enraptured audiences at the ImPulsTanz Vienna International Dance Festival and Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) Berlin. Often lauded as a minimalist, he is celebrated as a pioneer in the realm of anti-illusionist theatre.

The performances are done in a minimalist way,  a reflection of Michael’s signature style. Dancers are dressed in their own clothes, allowing their personalities to shine through as part of the story. Known for his passion for portraiture, Michael weaves the true stories of the cast members into the choreography, adding each performance with a personal touch. “I hate artistic conventions,” Michael says. “But I do respect classism, which is timeless — I find Khmer traditional dance the most elegant, dignified form of dance and I think it’s totally timeless.” 

Through his latest projects, he seeks to showcase Cambodia’s classical movements with the energetic flair of the Madison dance, creating an experience that’s equal parts homage to tradition and celebration of creativity.

Originating in the United States, the Madison dance found its way to Cambodia in the swinging 60s, where it quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Meanwhile, Vanthy Khen, with her background in classical folk and contemporary dance since childhood, adds her own cultural heritage and artistic vision to the stage. As a freelancer as well as a teacher and choreographer for the Ministry of Arts and Culture in Cambodia, Vanthy seeks to bridge Cambodia and the global dance scene. “We aim to show Western and Khmer movements together into a single Madison step,” she says.

In a partnership spanning over a decade, Michael and Vanthy have collaborated on numerous projects, including “Galaxy Khmer,” highlighting their shared commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and bridging cultural divides. “Cambodia is the only country where the Madison is still an actual dance because Cambodians have their own take on it,” Michael explains. This concept aligns perfectly with his postmodern perspective, or even the pop concept of reinterpreting existing elements into something fresh and original. To him, Cambodians have transformed the Madison dance by blending various influences, resulting in a truly innovative creation.

The 50-minute performance will take place in an impressive theatre equipped with a digital screen. With improved facilities and advanced recording capabilities, Michael is excited to undertake more projects in Cambodia, leveraging the country’s rich cultural heritage and vibrant creative community. The limited performances are set for March 1st and 2nd. Prepare to witness the performance that will make you rethink the future of Cambodia’s dance at the John Crawford Theatre, Canadian International School of Phnom Penh in Koh Pich. Featuring a diverse cast of performers, including seasoned professionals, independent dancers, and budding talents from Phnom Penh’s Secondary School of Fine Arts and Phare Ponleu Selpak, “Madison Now” is poised to be a spectacular showcase of talent and innovation.

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