The Rebirth of Classical Cambodian Dance

INDIGENOUS performing-arts traditions are becoming endangered species throughout the world. Usually they disappear as the result of political annexation or the encroachment of Western popular culture.

In 1975 one of the most ancient performance traditions of Asia - the classical dance of Cambodia - came dangerously close to being wiped out at the hands of its own people. When the Communist Khmer Rouge came to power, led by the extremist ideologue Pol Pot, they carried out a ruthless purge of the intelligentsia in which almost every member of the country's classical ballet troupe perished.

But a handful of the masters and corps dancers survived, and in the 14 years since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, this exquisite school of dance has been rescued.

Chea Samy, one of the few teachers who survived, recalls that terrible time: "I lived in fear every day, because I never knew if I would die tomorrow."

At the time the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, there were more than 600 teachers at the Cambodian school of dance in the capital of Phnom Penh, Mme. Samy says. After four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, only 10 teachers were still alive. In addition, Samy says, only one of the skilled seamstresses - who made the lavishly sequined and brocaded costumes of silk, velvet, and gold lam had survived.

In an interview at her home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Samy said that after the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese Army in 1979, the handful of artists and teachers who had survived came straggling back to the former site of the school. Officials of the newly formed People's Republic of Kampuchea, as Cambodia then became known, authorized Samy to recruit young dancers to reestablish the school and re-create the classical dance. "I went out into the countryside to try to find beautiful daughte rs of farmers who could learn the dance," she says.

Her own career as a dancer began in 1924, when she was six years old. A scout from the royal company discovered her in Kompong Cham province and brought her to dance at the royal palace in Phnom Penh. At that time, the classical dance was Cambodia's principal cultural glory. "The ballet was for the king. We used to perform for him and his guests at a pavilion on the palace grounds. The people were only allowed to come see us perform on special holidays."

The classical ballet of Cambodia, which dates back at least 1,000 years to the founding of the nation, is based upon ancient Indian models. The magnificent monuments of Angkor, the classic Cambodian civilization, are covered with sculptures that depict the legendary apsaras - celestial dancers who performed for the devaraja, the nation's god-king.

The Apsara Dance, which embodies many of the poses portrayed in Angkor-era sculptures, is the supreme expression of the Cambodian school of dance. In her youth, Samy was one of the most celebrated performers of this ballet.

The Cambodian monarchy supported the dance for centuries. Even after Prince Norodom Sihanouk was toppled by a coup in 1970, the ballet company survived and continued to thrive, although its principal female dancer, Sihanouk's daughter Bopha Devi, was forced to leave.

Survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime recall that simply wearing eyeglasses or speaking French was enough to classify a person as an intellectual, and thus an enemy of the Khmer Rouge.

Schoolteachers, doctors, artists, and craftsmen were summarily killed, or worked to death in the rice fields. In such a violent atmosphere, members of the royal dance company were obvious targets.

Samy estimates that 80 percent of the children she recruited for the newly reestablished dance academy were orphans. One of those children was Ourn Sophon, now 27 and a dance master at the school. As he spoke at the rehearsal room of the school, boys 10 to 12 years of age practiced the antic poses of monkey characters in front of mirrors, while the traditional Cambodian orchestra of pinpeat percussion and flutes played softly in the background.

According to Mr. Sophon, many of these young dancers are from the provinces. "Most of the older ones are orphans, because Pol Pot killed their parents," he said. "If they have relatives in Phnom Penh, they live with them. If not, they live at school. But here they have no fixed place. Now they are staying in the soldiers' barracks." The school now has 42 teachers and between 200 and 300 students. The number of students fluctuates because it is a luxury for the children's families to keep them in school a nd out of the fields or shops where they would ordinarily work.

The traditional dance of Cambodia falls into two categories: dances with folk origins (such as the Coconut Dance, a courtship dance in which the men and women pursue each other in constantly interweaving lines, while they rhythmically bang together coconut shells); ballets from mythological sources, such as the Apsara Dance; and ballets that tell stories from the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic. One example of the latter is the Sovan Macha, the tale of a mermaid menaced by an evil monkey character.

Proeung Chhieng, the school's director, says the troupe has had a number of successful tours abroad. It toured Japan in September 1992, and appeared in the Los Angeles Festival in 1990, the last time it appeared in the United States. (On that occasion, two boys and three girls abandoned the company to seek asylum.)

Now an honorary member of the National Assembly, Samy has retired from full-time teaching, but she still comes in one day a week to show the young students fine points of the Apsara Dance and other traditional ballets.

The school is still in precarious condition, with a tiny budget in one of the world's poorest countries. But some foreign agencies are helping the company; the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) paid for the pavilion where the girls practice.

Samy becomes emotional when she thinks about the friends and colleagues she lost in the Khmer Rouge years, but she remains defiantly optimistic about the continuing resurrection of the dance company to which she has belonged for nearly 70 years.

"We are having a hard time in my country now," she says. "But the ballet survived Pol Pot, and we can survive these times, too."

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