Though some local Cambodians predicted Los Angeles Festival performances by the Cambodian Classical Dance Troupe could spark protests and possibly even violence, a peaceful and enthusiastically received Sunday preview performance in Long Beach suggests that Cambodians here will set aside political differences when the company begins its festival performances Thursday night at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, the troupe will officially launch the first cultural exchange between Cambodia and the United States since the Vietnam War when it offers the first of four performances of the sacred classical epic "The Ramayana."
Some Cambodian community leaders feared the visit could signal an endorsement of communist Cambodia's Vietnamese-backed Hun Sen regime. But if Sunday's packed performance at the Long Beach Terrace Theater was any indication, a good chunk of Long Beach's 40,000-strong Cambodian community, the largest outside Cambodia, was willing to let art rise above politics.
The $10-a-seat preview primarily for the local Cambodian community drew an audience of more than 2,700, about 90% capacity of the Terrace Theater. After the performance, which mixed classical pageantry with insolent folk dances, some audience members paid $25 to meet the dancers during a dinner reception at a local Chinese restaurant. For arboretum performances Thursday through Sunday, about half the tickets--1,500 ranging from $20 to $40--had been sold by press time.
Than Pok, executive director of the United Cambodian Community, who earlier said violence was a possibility and spoke out against granting visas to the company, has changed his mind and plans to attend Friday's performance.
"The change in U.S. policy (toward the Cambodian artists) has smoothed things out a lot," he said. "I think that statement was political in nature when I made it."
The 32-member company from the capital of Phnom Penh almost didn't make it to Los Angeles. Because the U.S. government does not recognize Cambodia or its Communist government, festival organizers fought with the State Department for months to obtain visas for the group, arguing that its appearance represented a cultural exchange, not a political one.
It makes no difference that the governments of Cambodia and the United States do not recognize each other, artistic director Proeung Chhieng said through an interpreter Monday at UCLA's Artists Village, where company members are lodging.
"Art is a peace message which brings happiness, which brings well-being, which brings hope to all nations," he said. "Art is not (about) discrimination. Art is (about) the heritage of the whole human race."
The dance troupe faced extinction during the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh's University of Fine Arts and National Conservatory of Dance, like other arts groups, were deliberately destroyed; more than 90% of its teachers and performers were killed. Even now, many dancers, including Chhieng, are orphans or lost a parent because of the regime.
In 1980, the academy was reopened as the School of Fine Arts. Remaining artists began the painstaking reconstruction of the stories--which for the most part are danced by four types of characters: females, males, demons and monkeys. The traditions date back as far as AD 802.
Both a performer and a teacher, Chhieng, 42, specializes in training male dancers to perform the masked monkey dances, which involve comical tumbling, fighting and biting.