Cambodian Dance Springs Back to Life

Amid political turmoil, touring troupe revives ancient form after near-annihilation by the Pol Pot regime

In ``Chambang Pel Yup'' (``The Battle At Night''), a new composition in the traditional Cambodian form Lakhon Khol, two monkeys battle two demons. One monkey carries a candle, represented by a paper cylinder with red streamers popping out the top. When the candle gets knocked out of his hand, the adversaries continue to lunge at each other in the dark. The audience, naturally, can see everything, and the piece gets its virtuosity and its humor from the ensuing quadrille, with its agile thrusts and evasions of mistaken identity. Eventually the candle gets relit; the benevolent monkeys win out; and order is restored. According to the program note for the Cambodian Classical Dance Company's engagement at the Joyce Theater here, this piece is seen as ``an allegory for the battle against ignorance.''

Offstage, however, political chaos is still storming over this battered country in Southeast Asia, and ironically these dedicated artists have become its political symbols and pawns. Their New York opening last week, at the end of a month-long United States tour, was marred by defections, threats, media mania, and the intrusive presence of burly security types with metal detectors.

Given Cambodia's bloody and contested history in the 20th century, to say nothing of the previous thousand years, few people in the theater that night, certainly not this viewer, could have said which of the many shades of Left or Right was being represented here as ``Khmer culture.''

The Classical Dance Company of Cambodia is a heroic effort to resurrect an ancient art form after its almost total annihilation in the 1970s by the Pol Pot regime. As a court tradition, richly subsidized and favored, the classical dance was identified with its royal patrons and was wiped out when the Khmer Rouge took over the country. Now the dances and music - whatever can be remembered - are being taught and preserved at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, which was reopened 10 years ago under the post-Khmer Rouge government.

Ten years is not a long time to rebuild what took centuries. To me the dancers looked slightly less elegant than the first Cambodian company I saw here in 1971. They don't have that look of highly breakable statuary you find in the most pampered court dancers, the palace-bred Javanese who toured here last month, for instance. But then, these are survivors of a holocaust that is still being felt in their country. If they don't seem to gleam with an inner light, maybe day-to-day survival and study taxes their concentration to the limit.

The program alternated between pure-dance and dramatic pieces. Traditionally, women play all the roles except the coarse villains and acrobatic protectors like Hanuman the white monkey.

The women glide into positions facing the audience or bob gently in figure-eight formations to the rocking rhythms of two wooden xylophones. In their resplendent costumes of gold-spun fabrics and tiered gold helmets, they frame their bodies with sharply angled arms and legs, boneless hands and feet, gestures like baroque carvings.

In ``Choun Por'' they flick handfuls of flower petals at the audience from silver chalices. In ``Tep Monorom'' four of them play princes, and four are princesses; doing identical movements, they shadow each other and weave in and out in courtly patterns almost like minuets. (The French owned Cambodia for a century or so, too.)

In the dramatic pieces, gods and demons confront one another in deadly but always decorous combat. ``Moni Mekhala'' is a dance symbolizing thunder, lightning, and rainstorms. But what we see is an overconfident demon (danced by Buth On) trying to seduce a goddess (Yim Devi). He blusters and menaces her with raised, outspread arms, but she flashes a magic crystal and temporarily blinds or hypnotizes him. He throws a glittery hatchet, which lands at her feet and does no harm. When he reaches out to grab her, she puts out her palm and fends him off.

Probably the most physical duet came in the well-known excerpt from ``Reamker,'' the Cambodian version of the Ramayana, in which Sita is abducted by Ravana after he's tricked Rama and Laksmana into leaving her unprotected while they go in search of a beautiful golden deer. The demon pulls Sita off the low platform where she's been hiding and she screams quietly behind her hands. Eventually, Hanuman and his fellow monkeys come to the rescue and fight off Ravana's crew with somersaults and chopping blows.

All these plays have a toylike quality to me, like stories in a child's book of Bible stories. The characters are one-dimensional, flawlessly portrayed simplifications of deep lessons. The dancers seem focused outward at all times, as if displaying and projecting to the audience is their only concern. Although they share much in style and content with the Javanese, they don't convey the inner spirituality that veils Javanese court dance with detachment in spite of its material magnificence.

Maybe this is an issue of performing style, the need for a refinement and certitude that this reconstituted Cambodian classicism has yet to attain. But what I wondered about even more than aesthetics was where this dance originates now. Does it have a spiritual motivation? Did it ever? What makes these performers do what they do? If tradition and history drives them, whose history do they perpetuate? The deposed Cambodian royal family? Some half-remembered civilization that's been reinvented over and over again since Angkor Wat? Do they see any irony in being sent on a mission to perform their anti-elitist government's humanitarian intentions to the still-skeptical Americans?

A company spokesman, asked bout the political implications of the defections, insisted that the company has ``nothing to do with politics. They're not here as representatives of the government, but as representatives of Cambodian culture.'' At this point, Cambodian culture seems to be remaking itself before our eyes. Where traditional, classical art fits into it is far from a nonpolitical question.

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