Things have come a long way in the short time since one of the Epic Arts’ founders Katie MacCabe came to Phnom Penh from the London office to begin running creative arts workshops with disabled organisations in Cambodia. Back in 2003, Katie found herself with translator Kim Yousophea, cycling around the city, precariously balancing a CD player on her handlebars, with a selection of Khmer beats in her basket. Today, Epic Arts employs eight staff, full and part time, and has started the first professional integrated performance group in the sub-region.

The Epic team expanded to three, when Katie met Nhim Sophara, a deaf student who had been working as a researcher for DDP (Deaf Development Programme). Having trained with Australian deaf performance artist Rob Farmer, it was clear that Sophara had a natural talent for performance.

His theatre skits have become very popular amongst audiences, many of whom never realise that he is deaf. Sophara is also a very skilled visual artist and now works full time as a workshop leader for Epic.

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The Beginning

In 2004 Katie also met Kim Sathia. A professional dancer for many years, Sathia performed classical and folk dance with the Royal University of Fine Art and toured nationally and internationally. Acknowledged as one of the leading apsara dancers of her time, Sathia was disabled in a car accident and now uses a wheelchair. Meeting Sathia was the inspiration that Katie needed to begin an integrated dance group. It was a long journey of trust building and self evaluation. Katie went to Sathia every week to learn Khmer hand gestures. One year after their first meeting, Sathia took Katie’s hand and said “I think I want to dance again.” So, they began to dance.

During October 2005, award winning British choreographer Jo Parkes came to Cambodia in a project funded by the British Embassy to complete a three week choreographic residency with the team.

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Advocacy  and Dance

The aim of the project was to create an integrated dance piece to be used as an advocacy tool and toured around local schools and disability organisations. Two days into the project Sophara informed the group that according to Khmer superstition, it is unlucky to have three people in a performance and that the team should encourage other dancers to join the project. It was at this point that Katie invited seventeen year old student Pon Denh to join the group. Katie had noticed Denh, who had been disabled as a child by polio, when she was running workshops at Lavalla School. “He just had such a lovely energy about him, I noticed him straight away” she says. Denh had no previous experience in dancing but brought a great deal of enthusiasm and natural talent.

Sovanna Phum dancer Tanma Thom also joined the team a few days into the project. Thom trained with Sathia at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and they danced together for many years before her accident. Inviting Thom to participate in the project seemed like a very natural step, so that he and Sathia could dance together again. The team of five dancers was now complete, and the Epic integrated dance company had been created.

The Return is the result of this three week choreography project. The performance piece including dance, theatre and art, is based loosely around the Cambodian folk story, Wolf Mountain, and touches on issues of integration.

British composer Christopher Benstead came to Cambodia to write the accompanying music and worked with some of the country’s finest musicians. Twelve musicians, including the legendary chapei player Kung Nai, worked with Chris over an intensive week to compose a forty minute soundtrack to accompany the performance. “For me, one of our greatest achievements in creating the music for The Return, has been that of giving birth to a truly organic piece of work – one that did not set out to be any kind of East Meets West fusion but rather blended and married sounds to create a rich and varied soundtrack.” says Benstead. The sound track to the performance will be released on the Studio CLA label sometime next year.

An overwhelming number of people attended the debut performances of The Return at Sovanna Phum. The young disabled children in particular responded when Denh flipped in to handstands and did wheelies in his wheelchair and the deaf young people in the audience began laughing and signing madly during Sophara’s theatre. One of the key objectives of the project was to offer disabled role-models to young disabled people, encouraging them to aspire to play an equal role in society and to resist categorisation by the perceptions of others. Kim Sathia too is a role model for disabled people, a wonderful example of someone who has overcome their disability and reclaimed her life by returning to the stage.

 

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International Recognition

The Return has since been performed in several provinces to over 5000 people. The group were also recently invited to perform in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam throughout the next six months. Epic Arts is the only group of its kind in the sub-region, and over the next few years will increasingly be acting as representatives of Cambodia.

A small arts centre has been started by Epic in Kampot in order to host workshops with disability groups. The arts centre comprises of a workshop space above the Epic Arts café which employs local deaf and disabled staff. “This is the first step of our big dream” explains Katie, “within the next two years we hope to have a much larger arts facility in Kampot for people of all abilities and disabilities to participate in dance, art and theatre workshops. Our key aim is integration” The team have done incredibly well in making their dreams come true so far, there is no reason that this wonderful dream should not become a reality.

CHALLENVES VOL3, ISSUE1, 2010 (Challenges Magazine is a journalism skills training project for persons with disabilities started in 2007)