Cambodian Dancers Run Into Roadblock on L.A. Festival Visit : Culture: State Dept. approves visa for choreographer, but Phnom Penh regime disapproves visit. Organizers of the event remain optimistic.


The National Dance Company of Cambodia’s participation in the Los Angeles Festival suffered a setback this week when the Cambodian government disapproved a trip here by a Cambodian choreographer to negotiate with festival officials.

The choreographer, Proeung Chhieng, who is the vice dean at the Phnom Penh School of Fine Arts, had been granted a temporary visitor’s visa earlier this month by the U.S. State Department. He was only the third Cambodian under the current Phnom Penh regime to be granted such a visa, as the U.S. government does not recognize the Vietnamese-installed regime or its leader, Hun Sen.

The approval of Proeung Chhieng’s visa, however, came simultaneously with the denial of a visa for Chheng Phon, Cambodia’s minister of culture and information. Chheng Phon’s visa was denied, a State Department source said, because granting a visa to a “high-level representative” of the Phnom Penh regime might be seen as “confering legitimacy” on that regime.

But festival organizers and individuals involved in the politically sensitive and complicated negotiations say they will continue with plans to host the dance company at the Sept. 1-17 arts festival.


“There’s just too many things going on to predict (whether the Cambodians will be approved),” said Judith Luther, festival executive director. Even if we’re turned down at first, we’re going to go ahead with it, so we don’t have to go running around if they’re approved at the last minute. We’re going to keep the money in the budget and keep up on all of the paperwork.”

Luther added, “I think it will happen, but I think there’ll be a lot of setbacks along the way. It’s the kind of thing where we probably won’t know for sure until a couple of weeks before (the festival).”

Such last-minute decisions have characterized much of the festival’s planning. Organizers have missed funding deadlines and delayed programming decisions. The festival has yet to come up with a logo design.

“Of course (the Cambodian negotiations) are the most complicated, but in every area it’s complicated,” Luther said. “It’s painstaking. We’re doing everything the hard way.”

Indicative of these complications is the roundabout way negotiations with the Cambodians have developed.

The first indication received by the festival that the choreographer wasn’t coming was via hand-scrawled fax from Philadelphia: “We just got a cable saying--sigh!--Proeung Chhieng is not coming.” It came from a key player in the negotiations, John McAuliff, who is the director of the Philadelphia-based U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project, and is acting as a go-between for the festival, the State Department and the Cambodian culture ministry.

At first, festival officials on Tuesday had assumed that the U.S. State Department had revoked Proeung Chhieng’s visa.

But according to McAuliff, it was the sole decision of the Cambodian government to cancel Proeung Chhieng’s visit, which had been expected in the next couple of weeks.


“The government in Phnom Penh felt that Proeung Chhieng was basically coming here to assist Chheng Phon, and when (Chheng Phon) was turned down they may simply have been insulted that a person of this kind of eminence was turned down, when in Cambodia he’s viewed as being so non-political,” McAuliff said.

Or, McAuliff continued, “Maybe they decided this guy was just too junior. Maybe they don’t think he’s the kind of person that can help establish these kinds of (important cultural) relationships.”

Even McAuliff has not been in direct contact with the Cambodians. His information came from an American liaison living in Phnom Penh, who cabled him a terse message: “The ministry decided not to send Proeung Chhieng by himself. They said that the only purpose for his travel was to accompany Chheng Phon, and if he wasn’t going then there was no point.”

McAuliff, whose organization handles mainly educational exchanges and was responsible for bringing the head of Cambodia’s Red Cross here last year, is traveling to Phnom Penh on Friday. Although the purpose of his trip is to arrange for 10 American teachers to visit Phnom Penh this summer, he said he also will act on behalf of the L.A. Festival to obtain information about the 32-member Cambodian dance company and negotiate with the culture ministry in hopes of changing their minds about Proeung Chhieng’s visit.


Either way, McAuliff said, the Cambodian’s decision to cancel Proeung Chhieng’s visit shouldn’t affect whether or not the dance company makes it to September’s L.A. Festival.

"(The Cambodians) are committed to sending them and I think they’ll send them if the U.S. will give them the visas,” McAuliff said.

While festival officials had viewed the granting of Proeung Chhieng’s visa as a fairly strong indication that the dance company’s visas may also be approved, McAuliff was less enthusiastic.

“They allowed (the head of Phnom Penh’s Red Cross) here last year, so it really wasn’t anything outside of the past. I’m glad they did it, but I don’t think they moved much,” McAuliff said. “I think it’s encouraging, but they could still make the distinction of (granting a visa to) Proeung Chhieng as an individual and (not granting a visa to) the dance company (because it could be seen) as a national symbol of Cambodia.”


In denying the Culture Minister’s visa, a letter to McAuliff from Charles H. Twining, director of the State Department’s Office for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia Affairs, touched upon such national symbols. “We recognized the worthy cultural component to Dr. Phon’s proposed travel but . . . determined that granting a visa to a Cabinet member of the Phnom Penh regime would have had potentially serious policy consequences for the U.S. . . . (and) would confuse other states regarding the consistency of our Cambodian policy,” Twining wrote.

The official State Department response Wednesday was that they were not surprised of the cancellation because of the choreographer’s government ties through the Phnom Penh School of Fine Arts.

Shawn Pogatchnik in Washington contributed to this story.