In 2012, British-born dancer, choreographer and teacher Stephen Bimson founded the English Ballet Theatre Cambodia in Phnom Penh. A former student of the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London, Bimson moved to Cambodia permanently in 2011. Today EBTC boasts a full staff and a growing community of students. In this interview, I talk with Bimson about why he started the school, what attracts his students to the school, and what his goals are for the future of the art form in Cambodia.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
LAK: You’re on a mission to bring ballet education to Cambodia. Until you opened the Central School of Ballet—now called the English National Theatre of Cambodia—in Phnom Penh in 2012 there were no ballet schools in the country. What has the reception been like for the past seven years?
SB: The response has been great. We have grown consistently over the last eight years, not just in student numbers but in what we can offer our students and the community. When we first started, I had big dreams as I always do, but I didn’t know how it was going to work out. Obviously we are always learning and making course adjustments to improve all the time. The expat community here has definitely been the early adopters because they are familiar with the art form, but the Khmer nationals are slowly beginning to pick it up. For the expats, we have found that the studio becomes more than just a place to study ballet. For [expat] children who have studied in other countries before coming to us, it provides a familiar and safe environment that can be very helpful with the transitional period at the start of their time in Cambodia. For the older expats, it has become a place where they can escape work stress and engage in a little self-care, and for some others it has become a profound place where they can learn to engage with their bodies in a whole new way and heal wounds that have been long since hidden.
LAK: After completing ballet training at the Ramberg School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, you decided not to pursue a career in performance but instead to become a teacher. What led you to this decision?
SB: The simple answer is that I love dancing and hate performing. I understood this quite early on during my training. However, I love to share my passion for the art form through teaching and watching people grow as a result of their engagement with dance and the arts. That’s why I have such a passion for community dance. The vision at English Ballet Theatre Cambodia is to affect “transformation in communities and individuals through participation in dance.” My own life was changed in dance class, and we want to provide that opportunity for as many people as possible. We love watching people grow and progress in many areas of their lives and experience that same transformative power. This path has also given me the opportunity to build my identity as a choreographer as well as an educator.
LAK: Before deciding to open a ballet school in Cambodia, you volunteered in Phnom Penh with Outreach International. How did you get interested in Cambodia in the first place?
SB: I have to say that it was purely by chance. Cambodia really wasn’t on my radar, but I was looking for an opportunity to travel and do some volunteer work. Outreach International was one of the only places I found that was looking for a dancer, and the project [they wanted] was not overly defined, I had lots of opportunities to shape it and build it the way I wanted to. During that seven-month period I did two big performance projects. That work formed the basis of the community projects we now do with English Ballet Theatre Cambodia (EBTC).
In the subsequent nine years, Cambodia has very much become my home. It’s a special place that continues to challenge those who live here to learn and grow. Living cross-culturally has taught me things about myself that I may never have learnt had I not stepped outside the comfortable environment of my own culture. It has taught me to always look beyond the surface of a situation and seek deeper understanding of the factors contributing to the way I and others behave. Cambodia is a nation full of opportunity and potential with a young population who will be instrumental in shaping its future. My hope is that the school is a place where we can nurture some of these people who will go on to become agents of change.
LAK: Is classical ballet a well-known art form in Cambodia? Do you find that many people in Cambodia have specific ideas about or perceptions of ballet?
SB: The current King of Cambodia, before he became king, was a ballet dancer and choreographer trained in Prague who subsequently had his own company in Paris. Despite this, ballet is still not very well known, or at least if it is known, it is not very well understood. Obviously as I have said it is well known among the expat community here, but part of our job is to advocate for the art form [among the whole population]. We are now also at a stage where some of our young Cambodian dancers are looking at their future careers, and we hope that they will help to become role models for their nation in the arts. This is why, several years ago, we updated our mission to include vocational training. We believe that Khmer dancers are ultimately better suited to reach their fellow Khmer. We expanded our program to include RAD exams, mentorships, and teacher apprentice training, and this year we sent our first Khmer dancer to London to continue her training.
LAK: What do you wish people in Cambodia knew about ballet?
SB: Growing up in Europe, training as a dancer wasn’t just about being a dancer. You are keenly aware that you are part of a rich tapestry of art forms, of the history and future of art, of society. Here in Cambodia it is hard to impress this on students and audiences because it is not ingrained in the culture in the same way as apsara dance [a traditional Cambodian dance form] is; most people don’t have a frame of reference beyond the traditional dance forms.
Another part about dance that is super important to us is the benefits of dance participation on physical health, mental wellbeing and the all-around personal growth of an individual. Cambodia is still recovering from the effects of the genocide and so we are always aware of the real possibility that those who come to our studio are dealing with that trauma in one way or another.
LAK: I’m curious about your students. Do you find that children or adults of a particular background are attracted to ballet? Why might students choose to study ballet rather than another form of dance in Cambodia?
SB: We try to break any preconceptions people have about ballet and dance being for a specific type of person from a particular background or with a particular body type. Our goal is to be a place where everyone is welcomed and challenged, no matter where they are from or where they are at. We have both Khmer students and expat students from all over the world, representing all sorts of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. We have students that dance for fun, others who dance as therapy and others who want to pursue dance professionally. It’s important to us that there be a place for everyone at the school.
LAK: What are the most challenging aspects to your work as a ballet teacher and a “ballet ambassador” in Phnom Penh? What are the challenges in your role as a “ballet ambassador” in Cambodia?
SB: I think one of the greatest challenges is trying to give people as much access to that greater context of dance when there is currently very little opportunity here for them to engage in it. In many ways, we are just getting started because we believe the most effective ballet ambassadors will be our Khmer dancers. And so we continue to work and build and train, knowing that we will hand the baton over to those we are training. We are definitely aware that we are building into a future that we may not get to see because developing dancers and the infrastructure and audience needed to sustain them takes time. For instance, there are currently no suppliers in country for leotards, tights, ballet shoes or pointe shoes. We currently have a Khmer dancer who is ready to begin pointe work but the process involves a two-day trip to her home province to get the required paperwork to then return to the capital and apply for a passport, which could take months to then travel to a neighboring country to get fitted. This adds considerable time, effort and expense to the already difficult task of finding what every dancer knows is the most personal choice in equipment that they have to make.
LAK: Do you find that elements of Cambodian culture shape your approach to ballet education and performance at the English Ballet Theatre?
SB: Especially when working with community projects, we always have to consider how culture shapes the way the participants act and interact with the work. As a team we are always observing, reflecting, researching and growing in our understanding of these things and amending our preconceptions and work accordingly. Working cross-culturally is always a challenge, mostly because we are always confronted by what we don’t know or don’t understand. The positive side of this is that we rely on the wisdom of our Khmer partners as we keep asking questions and modeling for our dancers the importance of inquiry, of trying, of not being afraid to have something not work out. We constantly need to use critical thinking and teamwork to come up with new solutions.
LAK: In addition to regular children and adult classes, EBTC runs a community program for children in residential care. These students participate in short-term Community Performance Dance Projects. Could you tell me about these dance projects?
SB: Even as far back as my own training at Rambert I became very interested in community dance work and somewhat enchanted with the idea that it could help empower people who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to engage in dance to receive the benefits from it. I believe it’s incredibly important to help everyone access dance either through training or watching performances.
For the first several years, we have worked with children in care. Orphan care is still a very big issue in Cambodia, not least because it is estimated that approximately 70% of the children in care have at least one parent still living. We wanted to explore how dance could help these children as they transition out of care. There are several NGOs that are working tirelessly to find better solutions, and they were incredibly helpful in educating us on the specific needs of these children, especially with regard to soft skills such as critical thinking, perseverance and teamwork. Studies showed that the lack of these skills were a major contributor to these children failing to thrive as they transitioned out of care. These were all things we could engage through dance. For each project, we had an overall theme we focused on and would use the project to explore that theme with our students helping them to unpack it for themselves and providing a safe and controlled space in which they can model it in their own lives and most importantly their own bodies.
This coming year we will embark on a new community project with the added extra of widening the demographic of who we work with to include other isolated social groups.
LAK: What inspired you to start the community program, and what is your mission for this program?
SB: The mission for our community work is the same as that for the other work we do – to affect transformation to communities and individuals. I’m convinced that good dance training gives people more than just technical ability but also helps to promote creative and critical thinking, resilience and perseverance, communication skills and a sense of self awareness and value. We are very intentional about teaching all these things in all the classes and projects we do at the school.
As far as inspiration, with each project we do, we are continually inspired by the bravery of the participants. So far, everyone who has joined one of our projects has not had any context for ballet whatsoever. They have never seen a ballet, never stepped foot in a dance studio or in a theatre, never heard classical music, things like this. Culturally it is a big risk as well because we constantly ask them to try new things. This is a risk that could cause them to lose face, which is to be avoided at all costs in Khmer culture.
Each project we do ends in a performance. We take the dancers into the theatre on performance day, and they are terrified. By the end of the performance, they are completely transformed. They realize they have just accomplished something they could never have even imagined before. And then without even knowing it, that courage spills out into other areas of their lives. And every time this happens, we are filled with awe and wonder and inspired all over again.
LAK: One of the graduates of EBTC’s community program, Sy Naet, has just been accepted to the Rambert School. Congratulations! She recently arrived in the UK, and she’s been blogging about her experiences there. What steps did EBTC take to support Sy Naet’s dreams?
SB: Sy Naet first started dancing with us about five years ago through our community program. We offered her the opportunity to join the school full time shortly after with a full scholarship. Quite early on in our community dance projects, we instituted monthly check-ins with the NGOs we were working with. This practice continued when we developed a mentorship program for the community dancers that had completed multiple projects with us and displayed leadership skills. Sy Naet was part of this group so we were able to track her progress and growing understanding that a career in dance was a possibility. She quickly progressed and started taking vocational exams abroad two years ago. Last November she came to us and expressed a desire to take her pursuit of a career in dance to the next level, by continuing her training abroad. We supported her by providing additional dance training and RAD exam prep, strategic planning including mapping out possible training options and career paths, academic tutoring in literature, English language, math, science and drama, cultural and emotional transition training, application assistance, IELTS exam prep and extensive visa prep. We are incredibly lucky to have a member of staff who has now moved back to the UK who helped her during her first few months acclimatize to the UK and all the new things she needed to learn and as a team we continue to support and coach her through the things she is experiencing. On top of all that, we also helped to raise the funds for her to attend the school and will continue all the way through the next three years.
Once she has finished, we hope she will return to Cambodia and join the school with the future prospect of taking it over.
LAK: Do many EBTC students have aspirations to continue their training beyond EBTC or to become professional dancers? How do you help them further their training?
We do have some and I’m sure we will have more and more as we grow. Currently, as we are still a small organization, we have the ability to address each one individually. We talk to them about what their hopes and dreams are and help them map out all the possibilities before them. We try to work out a pathway that will best suit them and build a training and development program around them that will help them achieve this. At the same time, we continue to grow and improve the opportunities here in the country so that more and more people have access to better and more diverse dance training here.
LAK: Any parting thoughts?
SB: First of all, thanks so much for your interest in dance in Cambodia. We love being able to share what’s happening in our corner with the wider ballet community, and a lot is happening! Right now one of our greatest needs if for one or two passionate dancers who would be interested in joining us in developing ballet in Cambodia. We have opportunities for short-term interns as well as longer term.
To learn more about these opportunities, please reach out to Stephen Bimson through the EBTC website, (ebtcambodia.com).