AT the beginning of March the Children of Bassac traditional Khmer dance troupe closed out the two-week National Drama and Arts Festival with an invitation-only performance at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
The troupe is now performing for the public at the same venue, with the second of two shows scheduled for tonight at 7pm. The shows serve as a preview to the weekly performance season in November and December.
The Children of Bassac troupe was formed in 2003 by traditional theatre singer Ieng Sithol under the name Cultural Economic Association for Orphans and Poor Children. He renamed the group earlier this year to remind people of its origins in the Bassac community in Phnom Penh where the performers – a company of dancers aged 16 to 21 – still live and rehearse.
Ieng Sithol said he founded the group to provide poor and street children with the opportunity to learn traditional Khmer music and dance.
“Most of the children in the programme can sing, dance and play traditional instruments,” he said. “They can get some income doing this, but what’s more important is that it helps the children avoid lives of drug use, thievery and prostitution, which are not valuable activities in society.”
In 2005 the group joined with Cambodian Living Arts, increasing opportunities for the children to learn more skills and earn a bit more money. The Children of Bassac now perform at least three times a month at traditional festivals and weddings, and some of them have also performed abroad in places such as Britain and Japan.
One of the performers, 18-year-old Chamroeun Sopheak, even won a prize last year for the best female singer in the nationwide Song Heritage Competition, aired on the Cambodia Television Network.
Chamroeun Sopheak has studied with the Children of Bassac since she was 12 years old, and she is now a grade-11 student at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
“It is difficult to earn a living as a performer, but as art lovers it is better to use our talents to preserve the traditional arts and try our best to promote them,” she said.
Children of Bassac founder Ieng Sithol said the group is only a small part of the bigger effort to help poor children in Phnom Penh.
“We are only able to help about 10 or 20 percent of the children in the Bassac area who are susceptible to bad influences from society and their environment,” he said.
Ieng Sithol also revealed that he is uncertain about the future of the Children of Bassac.
“The children are growing, and they will eventually have their own families. I am thinking of how to help them grow stronger so they can continue to earn their living from the arts,” he said.