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Create Cambodia Arts Festival 2016

This past weekend Peace Corps Volunteers and their Cambodian counterparts brought 110 creative students from eleven provinces to the Khmer Arts Theater in Tak Hamu for two days of workshops and performances. For some students it was their first time out of their provinces. For many it was their stage debut. “I never imagined myself doing this,” said one boy who performed a solo dance to the delight of us all. Really, that was the point of the Festival—to imagine oneself doing.

Friday night opened with performances by professionals: the Khmer Arts traditional dance ensemble, Tiny Toone’s pint-sized hip-hop dancers, and an interactive lecture by Cambodian Living Arts on traditional Khmer musical instruments. But the evening belonged to Epic Arts, a troupe of disabled dancers in wheelchairs who had lost limbs in landmine explosions. Without legs they danced. With able-bodied partners the dancers tumbled out of wheelchairs, spun around, twirling with grace and strength. Their joy was our joy.

At 9 p.m. we strung up mosquito nets and hammocks and laid out rice mats on the stage under the serene gaze of a replica of Angkor Byon, lulled to sleep by cicada music. Saturday morning the kids were up at 4:30 a.m. After a bucket brigade of showers, and breakfast of rice and chicken, the workshops began. Again, Epic Arts brought the most dynamic interaction of day infusing even the shyest participants with courage to try new movement. The passionate leaders of Epic Arts live up to their name. Later Saturday afternoon student performers sang, danced, and acted in original short plays. There were plenty of jitters and a lot of heart displayed. Enthusiastic applause was their reward.

Artists contributed to the Strong Women theme of the Festival with a mural of their mothers and Apsars (sacred female dancers in Hindu and Buddhist mythology depicted on the temples at Angkor). Art Olympics artwork from PC art clubs across the nation ringed the theater. Ten young artists were selected by popular vote for the fabulous prize of an all-expense paid trip to visit Angkor Wat, go to the Phare Circus, and participate at artist’s workshops of clay and woodworkers in Siem Reap.

The Create Cambodia Arts Festival has been going strong now for five years. It’s an ambitious event that takes months of planning with grants, and logistics, and lots of camping gear. Andrea Edman, a K8 Peace Corps Volunteer who will be closing her service in August, deserves special recognition for her cool-headed leadership and sunny smile—even when facing a water shortage in the latrines. (She got it going again within half an hour.) I was proud to be part of the team—but now I’m ready for a two-week nap.

Peace Corps Volunteers produce Create Cambodia and Art Olympics to nurture the creative spirit of young people in Cambodia. A 16-year old girl student of Andrea’s said, “Create Cambodia was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life—and it was the most comfortable I’ve ever been being my true self.” Reason enough for us to do it again next year.

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