In a humid auditorium at the University of Fine Arts, Chea Samy, 73, prods and coaxes a group of dancers with an urgency that surpasses a desire for perfection.
To the matronly woman, the 3-hour rehearsals starting at 7 every morning are a race against time--not so much for the Cambodian Classical Dancers’ performances Sept. 13-16 as part of Los Angeles Festival, but because only a handful of other elderly veterans are alive today and remain determined to revive classical Khmer ballets that were banned and nearly obliterated by the genocidal Pol Pot regime.
Between 1975 and 1979, more than 90% of Cambodia’s artists were killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge soldiers, according to Chheng Phon, Cambodia’s minister of culture and information. Chea Samy survived the killing fields by hiding her past as a court dancer, telling the Marxist Khmer Rouge that she was a street vendor.
It is ironic that as the Hun Sen regime tries to win respect by restoring Cambodian arts ravaged under Pol Pot, a key player in the nation’s dance revival is Chea Samy, Pol Pot’s sister-in-law.
It was several years into the Khmer Rouge regime, she said, before she and her husband saw a portrait of the reclusive Pol Pot and realized they were related to the infamous ruler. They had known Pol Pot only by his given name, Saloth Sar.
“I don’t recognize him as my relative,” said Chea Samy, whose siblings and cousins died during the Pol Pot years. She said her husband considers Pol Pot a butcher and has renounced his brother.
Despite last week’s apparent shift in U.S. policy toward Cambodia, highlighted by Friday’s announcement by Secretary of State James A. Baker that the United States was “considering contacts with the Phnom Penh regime” as a means to end the war in Cambodia, a State Department official in Washington said the dancers’ applications for U.S. visas still remain “under consideration” in Bangkok.
The Bush administration’s decision to close its 15-year distance from Vietnam and resume talks with Hanoi on Aug. 6, ultimately to begin settlement on the Cambodian issue, will have little effect on whether the company is granted permission to travel to the United States.
On Thursday, six sets of remains that may be those of missing American servicemen were flown from Cambodia to Hawaii for analysis and identification, marking the first time in 15 years that Communist authorities in Cambodia have cooperated with U.S. missing in action or MIA missions.
And in a letter made public Thursday, a two-third majority of the U.S. Senate urged President Bush to oppose any Khmer Rouge role in Cambodia’s future and begin U.S. contacts with the Vietnam-backed government in Phnom Penh.
In 1979, after the Vietnamese-backed Hun Sen government forced out the Khmer Rouge, the minister of information asked Chea Samy if she would help revive Cambodian dancing. She leaped at the chance.
Her original five-year commitment is into its 11th year. With other teachers, she meticulously describes and categorizes each dance movement for future generations. She is writing a book and Chea Samy’s work is being translated by Toni Shapiro, a Cornell University anthropology student researching Cambodian dance for her doctoral dissertation.
Shapiro, 32, said she is awed by the dancers’ dedication: “People have struggled for 10 years to rebuild and they are still struggling and they are still poor. It’s not a positive time and yet, at the school of arts, those dancers are there every day. Teachers are there every day. It tells me there’s more to the dance than just pleasure in movement.”
To Chea Samy, every curve of the fingers, every tilt of the head has to be right. “My goal is to document Cambodian dancing because (it) is the culture and civilization of the Cambodian soul,” she said.
Fearing natural attrition and not ruling out another war-induced tragedy, she first told a government minister she needed 200 students. “If 100 are lost, there will be another 100 that survive,” she said.
A dancer in the royal palace since she was 5, Chea Samy is a crucial link between the past and the future survival of Cambodian dances. In the 1960s, court dances which took up to two days to perform, were shortened to just a few hours, so only a handful of dancers know the full-length versions.
Chea Samy saw every dance in the royal palace and her goal is to restore each work.
When she began her mission, she found only two dance teachers willing to return to the arts in the country. “They had many difficulties under Pol Pot,” said school administrator Malis Keo. “They were tired. Some of them were afraid for political reasons.”
Dancers were hard to find too. School officials began radio advertising and recruited 7- to 12-year-olds who had broad, flat feet required for balance and malleable fingers that could be trained to bend back elegantly.
By last year, competition for admission to the school was fierce. Of 1,000 applicants, only 75 passed the entrance exam.
Not surprisingly, many recruits were orphans who lost their parents during the Pol Pot years. Of 93 students in the dance school today, one-third are orphans and while few are eager to recall the nightmarish days under the Khmer Rouge, they remember the stilted, revolutionary-style dancing and singing in the communes.
“It was far different,” dancer Huy Serey Phouseta, 20, said of Khmer Rouge dancing. “I saw them dance and they just raised their hands a bit and they stomped their feet. I like what I’m dancing now because Cambodian dancing is important for our nation.”
Malis Keo, a dancer who survived Khmer Rouge rule by pretending to be a former pedicab driver, said lyrics in communist songs always focused on nationalistic themes such as repairing railroads or admiring the Communist Party.
The Cambodian Classical Dancers now perform traditional court dances such as the Neang Or, which depicts daily activities in the royal palace in gentle, fluid movements.
Dancers often hear criticism that Cambodian art has been “Vietnam-ized.” Although Vietnamese troops officially pulled out of Cambodia in September, political factions in exile--including the Khmer Rouge--charge that Vietnamese influence is still strong. But Chea Samy assured a visitor that the revived dances are Khmer.
“If you go to Angkor Wat, you can see the same images on the walls,” she said.
During one recent rehearsal, she stayed a few steps ahead of her students as they shuffled and glided across the floor, imitating the swaying of hips and the delicate rotation of wrists.
Occasionally she stopped in mid-step and walked over to confer with musicians and singers about a missed note or errant refrain.
Memories have been dulled by the physical and emotional strains of the Pol Pot years. “We forget some of the music,” said musician Soum Tat, 62, who once performed with Chea Samy at the royal palace.
While dance teachers in Phnom Penh have chosen 30 students who will make the U.S. trip, they are withholding announcement of their decisions. Some dancers have previously performed in India and North Korea, but none have ever been to the West. Asked what they know about the United States, the girls giggle and shake their heads shyly.
They are also unaware that some Cambodian-Americans in California are divided about their visit and believe it amounts to recognition of the Communist Hun Sen regime.
“I consider culture higher than politics,” said cultural minister Chheng Phon, who was denied a visa to visit L.A. Festival officials in June. His dancers’ visit is purely a cultural event, he said, and using them to make a political statement would hurt.
“My dancers are young,” Chheng Phon said, his grandfatherly face contorting as tears welled in his eyes. “They used to be very, very afraid (under Pol Pot). Why do something to scare them again?”