Confessions of a CTN Choreographer

I’m still not sure how it happened. I was looking for an apartment, and somehow that led to an e-mail, which led to an inquiry, the sending of a CV, a few missed calls, and then an interview. (By the way, I found the apartment.)

I didn’t come to Cambodia to work in television. I came to work in dance and arrived to lead a series of choreography workshops for Cambodian Living Arts, and had been thinking more along the NGO, workshops, production side of things.

And yet somehow, at the end of a few very confusing interviews, I found myself with the job of choreographing the backup dancers for the slow songs on Cambodian Television Network’s live weekend concerts.

Let’s be honest: I had no idea what this was. I didn’t know anything about the concerts, had never watched them and had no concept of what they might look like. While the communication was a bit sketchy anyway, I could have done a lot more research; the only thing I did was watch the five minute sample DVD from the previous incarnation of the backup dancing.

Shall we say, thirty seconds was enough to understand why I had just been tasked with a total overhaul of the previous system.

In retrospect I think it’s probably a good thing I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After being at the whims of the dancers the singers brought with them, CTN decided they wanted their own teams on staff: one for the fast songs and one for the slow songs (which included the Khmer cultural pop songs).

But finding dancers was not as simple as that, we discovered.

They wanted eight for each, and the total number of applicants across two auditions was somewhere around thirty, with only seven of those being girls. The majority of them had experience only in hip hop and fast dance, and learned what they knew by watching people on television or YouTube.

Despite all that I managed to cobble together a team of six people – three boys and three girls – and get them in the studio to start rehearsing. My passable Khmer suddenly came in handy as most of the dancers didn’t understand English. I knew I was going to have three or four concerts per weekend and dreamed up a system of teaching blocks of movement that could be dropped on any song.

But teaching movement in a studio and actually performing at a concert are two different animals, as I discovered. Whatever freelance group of dancers used to perform had never apparently requested music ahead of time, strangely enough, because I texted myself out of credit more times than I can count trying to get CDs or audio files with the songs that would be performed on the weekend by Wednesday or Thursday.

Our first concert was the incredibly popular Saturday evening concert “Entertainment Tonight,” and on arrival, we discovered that the concert coordinator had another team on standby and had promised them two of the five songs we were told to prepare.

I guess you can’t really blame the guy. He had no idea who I was or who the team was and whether what we were doing was any good. I think for me it was just the difference between the “it’s okay, it’s a soft launch and we understand things will get better” message from Upstairs and the “You can have these two songs and if it’s good then you can do the other two, hello and welcome you are on trial” message once we actually got to the concert.

Needless to say: it was a stressful evening. And we got the last two songs, by the way.

The first few months were every bit of a mess as the first concert. If you can think of a way for things to go badly, it probably happened. Getting music was a constant battle. I discovered a couple weeks later that, while I had thought the minority of the songs would be Khmer cultural songs but in fact two of the three regular concerts would only have Khmer cultural songs sparking a whole “So why did they even hire a Barang?!” meltdown. We had close to ten songs per week, and half the time we’d arrive and find out that a song had been changed or cancelled.

One notable day, we didn’t even receive music during the week and were told the singer would bring the song with them at 4pm on Sunday. By 5pm we still didn’t have it, and then had somewhere around thirty minutes to prepare, after which the singer wanted to add another one, giving us fifteen minutes.

I don’t want to point fingers to blame for the chaos. All of the song changes and cancellations were the singers’ fault though, that’s for sure, combined with increasingly lax policy on CTN’s side.

The whole thing was a completely new environment for me. I know nothing about corporate structures, let alone Cambodian corporate structure. I’d never worked in television and didn’t know anything about it, and the culture of “want it all and want it delivered” was tough to deal with.

And then, to top it all off, I was so concerned with getting music, costumes, food and drink for the dancers, that I forgot to be struct with them.

Half of them – the girls, who were quite convinced they knew everything – spent their entire time blaming the boys for everything that went wrong, and the boys got sick of it, and everyone started to fight about everything.

Nobody was super interested in rehearsing and remembering ten songs is hard for anyone. On top of that, there was some discussion about our team doing a special dance show – I was told about it the week before, and given Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance as an example.

We didn’t end up doing it, thank heavens, but generally speaking, we hit March, and the whole thing was a mess of epic proportions.

So I ran away for a month. I’d been planning to do it anyway and although they made a small stink about it, CTN had known about this from my interview days. I ran away to the US and stressed about everything, and when I came back, everything changed.

Besides finally meeting my direct supervisor after four months of working there, CTN had hired a teacher to take care of the Khmer cultural songs, and after some discussions, we decided to split apart the teams again, sending one side to do the cultural songs and leaving me free to find my own team for the slow songs. It was an opportunity I jumped on as, over the course of the months, my previous team had become nigh impossible to work with, at least in the way I wanted to work.

Since the last time they had taken care of everything and it hadn’t quite gone as they’d planned, CTN left me to find the new team. I mined my contacts and my old team’s contacts, and got a team of six boys who were all interested in working together and working hard and doing well. We put together a sample video, filmed it at the CTN studio, and sent it off to be reviewed.

Besides the new team, which is fantastic (we’ve had some bumps along the way, of course, but nothing that wasn’t able to be straightened out), and a new stricter policy stopping everyone from following the singers’ whims of changing whatever song they please, I think everyone finally just got used to the system and me.

Some five or six months in, finally the concert coordinators were starting to be friendly, the MCs realized I actually worked there, the repeating singers started to figure out who I was – essentially, I wasn’t just the random Barang who happened to be chilling out all the time, but was actually on the staff.

The workload is manageable – two to six songs a week – and besides just dancing behind the singers, I was asked to create the “opening show” for the concerts every few weeks, something similar to the failed attempt earlier.

It’s still challenging, but these days, on the artistic side instead of the logistic side. I choreograph one new song a week, which is still a lot as it needs to be something new every time, and I try to squeeze in some time to rehearse the opening show when I can. More often than not, I feel like I’m working for my masters in choreography, except instead of nice friendly studio workshop sessions, mine are on live television.

When I stop to think about it – which is not often enough – it’s a cool job, and getting better.
Especially because I get music on Tuesdays now.

Gillian Rhodes

3 thoughts on “Confessions of a CTN Choreographer

  1. MoodyMac Reply

    Interesting the little turns in life Cambodia can throw at you. Good on you for taking the opportunity.

  2. hellokhmer Reply

    Maybe you should have had a couple of routines and not tried to do 10 or more custom ones.

    • Gillian Rhodes Reply

      That’s what I did…any one week had at most 2 new routines. The rest was past movement. It was still too much to remember.

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