Dancing Into the Future — Cambodia Restores Its Lost Culture

The Asian Wall Street Journal

28 December 2001

Traditionally in Cambodia, dance is the stuff of gods. For centuries, Cambodia’s folklore has been preserved in narratives enacted by prancing apsara, or celestial dancers, as seen in the stone carvings that are found throughout Angkor, the temples of the ancient Khmer empire.

In “Dance: The Spirit of Cambodia,” a dance and music troupe, the celestial apsara becomes living flesh. Its 42 members include classical and folk dancers, musicians and costumers. Onstage, classical dancers imitate the poses captured in the carvings at Angkor, as they perform slow, one-legged turns with elbows and knees forming sharp angles. Dancers wear sumptuous, bejeweled costumes that glitter brilliantly so as to appear as luminous as gods. With their beatific expressions, the dancers gently tilt their heads that are topped with headdresses resembling the steeples of golden temples.

Accompanying the rich visuals is the ornate sound of the orchestra, whose members sit cross-legged onstage. The ensemble, composed of drums, gongs, xylophone, cymbals and woodwind instruments, create a cacophonous melody, devoid of harmony in the Western sense.

The sounds and sights on display may seem otherworldly to a Western viewer. But dance has a long history in Cambodia and is arguably the most revered of performing arts, embodying traditions thousands of years old while enlivening its contemporary identity.

Its roots can be traced to the height of the Angkor empire that reigned from the 9th to the 13th century. In the mid-1800s, King Ang Duong codified the gestures, movements and costuming of royal dancers based on sculptures found at Angkor Wat. At 52, Proeung Chhieng, the troupe’s current artistic director and a dean at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, moves with a youthful grace.

His grandmother introduced him to dance, and at age seven he performed the coveted role of the White Monkey. As a child, Mr. Chhieng toured with the royal company and performed in countries as far afield as Egypt and Yugoslavia. He recalls the rigorous training that children must undergo while their limbs are pliant enough to form obtuse angles. Dancers must also learn to endure the discomfort of heavy masks and constricting costumes — sewn on the body before each performance — that make breathing and ease of movement difficult.

In classical pieces such as “Reamker,” a Khmer interpretation of “Ramayana,” a Hindu epic, choreography is precise. The female dancers, dressed in their lavish costumes, are as serene as sculptures decorating a palace, and every movement is tightly controlled. Male dancers imitate monkeys who scamper across the stage as they itch imaginary fleas.

To complement the classical sets in the program are a selection of folk dances. In “Robam Tunasong,” a piece based on village performance traditions, two men wear horns and mimic frolicking bulls as they are lulled by the buzzing of a shepherd’s horn. In “Chhayam,” seven men dressed in simple blue pants and white shirts make their way down the aisle of the theater while playing drums and cymbals. They comically and coquettishly show off for a blushing maiden. The playful procession draws from those traditionally preceding ceremonies to and through Buddhist temples in villages.

Both in the breathtaking splendor of classical dance and the joyfulness of folk dance, Cambodia’s strong spirit shines through. Villages have had a long tradition of cultivating musicians and other performing artists. “Cambodians have art in their blood,” says Mr. Chhieng. “Dance is the essence of Cambodian spirit.”

Yet this tradition was nearly extinguished during the bloody reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. When Pol Pot came to power in 1975, Mr. Chhieng was studying in North Korea. Instead of remaining abroad, he returned to Phnom Penh immediately with the intent of salvaging Cambodia’s culture. Like so many others, this budding talent was sent to labor in the countryside and survived only by concealing his identity as an artist and erasing all thoughts of dance “except in dreams.”

After 1979, with the fall of Pol Pot, Mr. Chhieng set out to gather surviving dancers only to discover that nearly 90% of his peers had been killed; an estimated two million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge genocide. In an art form that relies on knowledge being passed down orally, the figures were devastating. But undaunted, Mr. Chhieng reopened the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 1980 to ensure that knowledge would be transmitted from survivors to the next generation. Restoring and documenting dance was a way to rebuild and renew the country.

Today the dancers in the troupe range in age from 17 to 48; its oldest musician is 71 years old. Teachers at the conservatory make about $20 a month and take on other jobs to supplement their incomes in order to pursue art. “Our people is an art species,” explains Mr. Chhieng. “We think about art before food. We are hungry, but we dance first.”

In the years since its inception, the troupe has performed for audiences in Australia, Russia, Sweden, Hungary, India and other countries, spreading the art form around the world. In 1990, two years after Vietnam announced the withdrawal of troops from Cambodia, the group toured the U.S. — and in a much-publicized move, several dancers defected.

Modern technologies are helping to preserve and expand the art. Through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Mr. Chhieng shot video recordings that can be archived, ensuring that dances will be preserved for posterity. And at a performance in New York this past summer, the dancers performed before a backdrop of slide projections depicting Cambodia’s landscape. “We try, little by little, things from other cultures. I’m an artist, my heart is open,” says Mr. Chhieng in his soft-spoken manner. “Every culture has come into Cambodia — India and China — and we grind it all up and select. Our culture develops with the help of other cultures.”

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