Ring action packs the right punches

Brodal Serei animates the story of professional Khmer boxer Hem Saran.
Brodal Serei animates the story of professional Khmer boxer Hem Saran. PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY



Emmanuele Phuon, Amrita

Performing Arts

da:ns Festival

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Sunday

Due to the physical demands of the art form, dancers are sometimes referred to as athletes. And despite the combative nature of martial arts, some forms are considered to be mesmerisingly graceful. The overlap between these two distinct forms lies in the undoubtedly skilled use of the body, as limbs are directed with impeccable control and agility.

Brodal Serei, meaning freestyle boxing, situates itself in this region of commonality. The da:ns Festival commission is a collaboration between Emmanuele Phuon and Cambodia's Amrita Performing Arts. Animating the story of professional Khmer boxer Hem Saran, the hour-long work reveals the hands within the gloves, the person behind the boxer and the art behind the sport.

Through a deliberate manipulation of speed, Phuon amplifies the strength and precision of Khmer boxing. What is seen are fists arcing through space, chests hollowing from impact and heads ducking in avoidance. These intricacies of movement show the performers as both opponents and partners, working against and alongside each other.

Saran's stories detailing superstition and ritual are peppered throughout the work, illustrating a boxer's spiritual commitment to the sport. This is required, as Brodal Serei shows, due to the dangerous and volatile nature of Khmer boxing. One fights for survival - in the ring and in life.

He states how if he dreams he will lose a fight, he will win it. Conversely, if he dreams of victory, he will end the match in defeat. Such beliefs, though groundless, provide boxers with a trace of certainty in a life they are largely bound to.

For many Cambodian boxers, the sport is a ticket out of widespread poverty as their remuneration increases with their reputation and the promise of endorsements awaits. Each kick, punch and round perfected in practice is a step towards success. The work shows the performers in a makeshift training hall, flipping large tyres and jumping rope while being egged on by hypnotic chanting.

While courage is genuine, it has its limits and they are tested not just in the ring. Saran relates an anecdote of being denied anaesthetics while having his split eyebrow stitched up. Boxers are expected to be tough, but when they fall, they fall hard. In one section, a performer is propped up against a wall, otherwise he is unable to stand. He folds at the waist, his legs buckle and he is kept conscious only by repeated slaps on his cheeks and chest. It is a poignant image of masculinity in a marionette.

The work ends on a sentimental note, with Saran's wife relating her woes about the perils of her spouse's job and their family income. After being privy to the emotions behind Khmer boxing's stoic front, this seems like an emotional wrench, as it states explicitly that which has been subtly and beguilingly communicated through the moving bodies of the dancers.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2016, with the headline Ring action packs the right punches. Subscribe