DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?
IT’S WEDNESDAY EVENING AT THE BASSAC THEATER IN THE CAMBODIAN CAPITAL of Phnom Penh, where classical dancers are finishing hours of preparation for their weekly performance for tourists. Outside, Thai disco music blares from boomboxes, motorcycles roar and neon from the garish dance palaces thrown up to service U.N. peacekeepers colors the distant sky. Backstage, in a tiny room, dressers who have finished wrapping dancers in heavy lengths of scarlet, gold or white silk are now sewing them into their costumes.
An elderly woman clucks in dismay over the sad state of the troupe’s finery. Their papier-mache masks and their mkots, the tall, golden headdresses that look like tiny temples, are crumpling. Gone are the days of crowns of gold and rubies when the king--not today’s near-destitute Communist government--was their patron. But each time a mkot is lowered onto a dancer’s head, she presses her hands together and bows in the sampeah gesture of respect. As other performers wait, they gossip about a dancer who has left to join Cambodia’s hot new video industry. The evening’s program is announced: a pastiche of classical and folk dances, including the Coconut Dance, always a crowd pleaser.
Half a world away, on a Sunday morning, in a community center in Arlington, Va., Yim Devi, once heralded as the most promising young Cambodian classical dancer in generations, impatiently waits for her pupils. Devi, as is traditional at Phnom Penh’s University of Fine Arts, where she was trained, is meticulously costumed, even for practice. Her blouse is shiny gold, and she wears a red sampot --a sarong pulled through the legs into trousers--and full makeup. Seven Cambodian children, all beginners, eventually arrive. Devi guides them through painful exercises to stretch their joints into the stylized postures of classical dance. Like a gardener shaping bonsai, the teacher takes a hand and bends it back, twists an elbow in, pushes a foot out. One 12-year-old grimaces, complains, “It hurts!” and gives up. She sprawls on the cold linoleum to drink a Coke. Devi frowns, and mutters under her breath, “They will never be dancers. They have no respect for their teachers and no discipline.”
A decade ago, maimed by war and the barbarous Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was like a dancer who had lost her legs. Only a handful of artists survived the fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge, whose fall was followed by a bitter civil war. The Vietnamese-installed government was pitted against the Khmer Rouge, anti-Communist warlords and loyalists to the old monarchy. Dancers, like all Cambodians, were split, some joining hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps on the Thai border, some immigrating overseas and some staying behind. But all fought to keep their culture alive.
And now Cambodia is up and dancing. In October, 1991, a peace agreement was signed to end the civil war. To police the accord, the United Nations mounted its second-largest peacekeeping operation in history (only Somalia is bigger), marshaling 22,000 troops at a cost of more than $3 billion. Three hundred and sixty thousand refugees, among them scores of dancers, have been repatriated from Thai refugee camps.
In Phnom Penh, the University of Fine Arts has been rebuilt and has just graduated its first class from the traditional 12-year dance training program. The Cambodian National Dance Company graces the royal palace and auditoriums around the world. And in the Cambodian diaspora, from Sydney to Los Angeles to Paris, Cambodian children struggle to revive the ancient art.
But the steps are shaky. After the signing of the peace accord, the Phnom Penh government balked at relinquishing power and the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm. Fighting continues. Elections held in May gave only a thin margin to supporters of longtime Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Old political factions still war over the composition of a new government. In late 1990, five classical dancers from Phnom Penh, among them Yim Devi, refused to return to Cambodia after a dance tour of America. Repatriated refugee dancers have not been able to reconcile with their Phnom Penh counterparts.
As Cambodians begin to grapple with their violent past, they now face even more wrenching change: an overnight lunge toward democracy and capitalism. U.N. peacekeepers have already sparked a materialistic frenzy in the country, akin to Thailand’s and Taiwan’s. Can classical dance, with its weight of Cambodian tradition but without its royal patronage, hold its own against Asian MTV, Thai soaps and kung fu flicks?
LEGEND HOLDS THAT CAMBODIAN CLASSICAL dance began in an epic battle between two armies of gods and demons who called upon the nagas (snake-dragons) that lived beneath the earth. The nagas roiled the ocean of milk and a legion of celestial dancers called apsaras was born. It was the apsaras --spiritual go-betweens, like angels or mediums, for the gods and humans--who taught dance to a troupe of earthbound women. Dance became an offering to the gods, binding this world to the eternal spirit world beyond. The dancers’ role as spiritual medium was underlined by the serene, otherworldly expressions on their faces--reminiscent of Cambodian Buddhas--and their use of a thick white rice paste to obscure their features. White is the color of death in Southeast Asia. Apsaras are immortalized not only in dance but in the great stone friezes at Angkor Wat, the 12th-Century temple complex that embodies the might of the Khmer Empire, which at its height dominated all of Southeast Asia.
Scholars date the art form back at least 2,000 years, as Hindu influence spread eastward from India. Most classical dances tell stories drawn from the Hindu epic “The Ramayana” or Buddhist and Khmer folk myths. Dance was part of every Cambodian ritual: prayer for birth, for fertility, for rain to nourish the crops and for the journey of the dead to the other world.
Traditionally, Cambodian dancers also had more earthly duties: to mate with the king. The resulting heirs would, like the king, be divine--born of the gods through their mothers, the dancer- apsaras . Originally, dancers were recruited from villages all over the kingdom when they were about 6 years old and lived in seclusion in the royal palace for the rest of their lives.
Chea Samy, 75, one of only three dancers of her generation to survive the Khmer Rouge, remembers performing for King Sisowath, Prince Sihanouk’s great-grandfather, when she was 7. “At that time, we all lived together in the palace--300 to 400 dancers and teachers,” recalled Samy recently. “We practiced so much I even forgot my parents. We were the king’s property.” Samy’s stoicism prevents her from describing how harsh the life really was. Dancers, even children, slaved 12 hours a day, forcing their hands, feet and hips into inhuman postures. The art may have been glorious, but it was a regime of absolute obedience, enforced by frequent beatings by their teachers, all in the name of spiritual perfection and ancestor worship.
Over the years, dancers who didn’t catch the king’s eye were allowed to marry and move outside the palace. In 1941, all dancers, except the king’s wives, left the palace.
It was Prince Sihanouk’s mother, Queen Kossamak, who modernized Cambodian dance. New classical dances could be created, the queen believed, as long as the ancient movements and myths were maintained. She shortened the rituals--many of which had lasted hours, even all night--and shaped them into modern performances. Her most famous creation is the Apsara Dance, the most exquisite and demanding of the classical repertoire. Only the most beautiful and accomplished dancers, of whom the queen’s granddaughter Bopha Devi was the quintessence, dance the Apsara. Like all Khmer classical dances, the stylized movements and elegiac pace of the Apsara seem more like mythic tableaux than dance in the Western sense. Arms undulate, knees and ankles flex seamlessly. Fingers and hands strike mannered poses so intricately that a ballerina’s seem inert. The earthly apsaras ' most arresting pose is the “flying posture,” balancing on one flexed leg, the other cocked in air as if the dancers were gliding through the clouds to earth.
To watch the star apsara in pure white, attended by her handmaidens, all moving as sinuously as the scent of jasmine blossom on a tropical night, is to know transcendence. The form may be secular, but the spirit is sacred.
The modernization of Cambodian dance parallels the reign of Queen Kossamak’s son. Prince Sihanouk abdicated in 1955, and was elected the country’s first secular leader. But he continued to live in the palace, maintain a lavish royal household, keep several wives among the dancers and to refer to his former subjects as “children,” just as he had when he was king. For their part, the Cambodians continued to call him samdech , or king.
Sihanouk was a great patron of classical dance, which remained a form of tribute. The young head of state quickly learned that dance was a potent political tool. During the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when Sihanouk was maneuvering to keep Cambodia neutral in the escalating Vietnam conflict and other Cold War struggles, visiting VIPs were summoned to the palace to watch lavish dance performances. And for the first time, dancers performed for average Cambodians, dancing in front of the palace and touring the provinces.
In April, 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown in a military coup and the royal era of Cambodian dance drew to a close. But the art survived as it had before, in the service of the powerful. Its masters now were the American-supported military officers who helped drag the tiny country into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War. Classical dance was still performed in the palace, but as anthropologist Paul Cravath points out, the end of the monarchy meant that Khmer dance had lost its ritual function.
The loss of such sacred purpose paled in the face of what was to come at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Early in the escalating civil war between the military junta and the Khmer Rouge, officials in the Ministry of Culture had a premonition that should the radicals win, Cambodian classical dance, with its royal heritage, might be suppressed. The ministry approved Cravath’s proposal to come to Phnom Penh to do research on classical dance. As a witness to its form and movements, Cravath would ensure that at least the memory of Khmer classical dance would survive--if not in Cambodia, then in the outside world.
Cravath arrived in Phnom Penh in January, 1975, on the eve of the Khmer Rouge’s apocalyptic takeover. There, he found the classical dancers desperately dancing, as if art were a bulwark against the bloodshed. “Rockets falling into the city almost hourly--one injuring a dancer within the palace grounds--had forced the ‘corps du ballet’ into temporary inactivity, but the training classes continued daily,” Cravath wrote. But the dancers’ artistry could not stop the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia was on a forced march into a civilization where classical dancers were enemies of the state and where propaganda for the revolution was the only form of art.
THE MOON-FACED, SMILING ELDERLY MAN opening the gate at Chea Samy’s simple wooden house on the outskirts of Phnom Penh looked vaguely familiar, not overtly sinister. But why was my skin crawling? Why was Chamroeun, my intrepid interpreter, giggling hysterically the way Cambodians do when they’re in mortal danger?
Could it be Pol Pot? The Khmer Rouge’s Hitler, Stalin and Mao rolled into one. A man right up there in the pantheon of the great mass murderers of modern history. He hasn’t appeared in public since Vietnamese invaders overthrew the Khmer Rouge, but he still manages their brutal affairs from a safe haven provided by the Thais just over the Cambodian border.
As our car rolled to a stop in front of the man, I managed to blurt out the unthinkable to the genteel, middle-aged Cambodian woman driving. “That’s not Pol Pot?” I hissed, while Chamroeun slumped down out of sight in the back seat.
“No,” she said, “just his brother.” She laughed. “And I’m his second cousin.”
Chea Samy had already told me in passing that surviving the Khmer Rouge was like coming “back from the dead.” She’d promised to talk more that afternoon about the Khmer Rough and her 45 years of teaching classical dance. But I had hardly expected to be greeted by the ghost of Pol Pot.
If that weren’t a close enough brush, Pol Pot’s brother turned out to be her husband. The story got more bizarre. Like most top Communist rulers, Khmer Rouge leaders, despite their ideology of austerity for everyone else, lived like kings in Phnom Penh. But violating the deepest Cambodian tradition of loyalty to family, Pol Pot, according to Samy, didn’t share his perks with his brothers and their wives. Even worse, he also refused to protect them from the murderous fanaticism he inspired.
And so, on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of the capitol, Chea Samy and her husband were forced to fall in line. Other dancers joined the forced march out of the city, quickly discovering, like all Cambodians of the middle and upper classes, that their talents and privileges now marked them for eradication.
As did everyone who wasn’t either a guerrilla or a peasant, the dancers tried to hide their identities. Samy pretended she had sold vegetables in the market. “Angka (the Khmer Rouge secret police) was suspicious,” Samy laughs. “They thought my step was too light to be a market woman. I told them it was because I had to walk like on eggshells because of the chicken crap in the market.”
Chea Samy is a little embarrassed by the banality of her memories of Pol Pot. “Saloth Sar was such a nice young man,” she says, using his family name instead of his nom de guerre . “The family knew about some of his political activities against Prince Sihanouk--it caused trouble because my husband was working in the palace--but in 1963, he disappeared. Later we learned he’d gone to the forest to join the guerrillas. We never saw him again.”
Dancer Vorn Savay, one of Chea Samy’s favorite former students, explains the Khmer Rouge’s brutality this way: “One kills another because of lack of culture Continued on Page 38 in one’s mind. Culture makes people with good memories and peace in their minds and their relations with each other. If the Khmer Rouge had known our culture, the cruelty in their minds would have lessened.”
Chea Samy looks away with embarrassment when told of Savay’s theory. “But Saloth Sar was a man of culture. The aunt who paid for him to study in Paris was herself a dancer.”
There is still little talk in public among Cambodians about how a culture that could produce the exquisite art of classical dance and Angkor Wat could also spawn the brutal Khmer Rouge. Prince Sihanouk is said to have speculated that the obsession with purity of Cambodian Buddhism--and he could have added, the dance--might be echoed in the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary puritanism. But these ruminations are private. Other connections intrude. Could the strict feudal discipline of the dance life parallel the Khmer Rouge’s authoritarian revolutionary culture? Pol Pot had a vision of returning Cambodia to the grandeur of the Khmer Empire. But at Angkor today, it isn’t just the flying apsaras or the beatific giant Buddha faces enshrined in tourist brochures that leap out--it’s also the friezes depicting the king’s brutal military adventures and his hordes of imperial slaves.
Chea Samy pushes Pol Pot away with another story. “One way the Khmer Rouge kept power over people was never to let them know anything. And so we had only heard a few rumors about their leader, a man called Pol Pot. One day in 1978, when I was washing dishes in a communal kitchen of a labor camp, some cadres came in to put up a poster of their leader.” Finally, Chea Samy realized that the Khmer Rouge’s murderous chief was none other than her own brother-in-law.
LATE ONE NIGHT DURING the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Chheng Phon, the man who was to summon Cambodian dance back from the grave, slipped away into the jungle.
There, alone, in the pitch-dark, he danced.
He had come to the dance late, in his 20s. As a male, he could never perform the great classical roles. And he was an intellectual, not a performer. But believing that dance is the soul of Khmer culture, he wanted to feel the ancient art in his bones.
Conjuring up that night recently, posed on a plastic couch at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, he leaves no doubt that that night in the jungle, he danced. While he talks, his right hand becomes the bud of a flower, then a leaf, then a blossom, then a fruit, the exquisite symbols of the cycle of life and death told in the Tep Monorom, a dance of blessing that ends Cambodian dance performances.
A child watched Chheng Phon that night and reported his “crime” to the Khmer Rouge, who threatened to kill him for being a reactionary. “Many artists died then, many because they had no freedom to express themselves,” he says. “To dance is our rice, our nourishment.”
Ninety percent of Cambodia’s dancers and a sixth of its people died between 1970 and 1978--tens of thousands from American bombing and the civil war and more than a million at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge’s vision of returning Cambodia to the glory of the Khmer Empire had only reinvented slavery, feudal repression, mass starvation and disease.
By spring, 1979, the Vietnamese had banished the revolutionaries to mountain hideaways. The few dancers who had survived joined the millions of Cambodians who clogged the roads searching for their families, returning to their native villages or fleeing to Thailand. Once Chheng Phon and Proeung Chhieng, who was to become head of the dance program at the resuscitated University of Fine Arts, made their way back to Phnom Penh, they found the school of dance in ruins, their antique, ivory-inlaid musical instruments burned and the fabulously valuable royal costumes and headdresses of gold and gems stolen.
The search went out: There weren’t enough survivors to perform a single classical dance. But Chea Samy was found, as was one of the original royal costumers and one man who remembered how to build traditional musical instruments. They gathered as many children as they could, most of them orphans. Costumed in sampots of peasant cotton, they began to perform, teach and practice all at once.
In the refugee camps, dancers who had fled the country also clung to each other and their art. Anthropologist Toni Shapiro, who worked in the camps, remembers that while Vietnamese refugees started rock ‘n’ roll bands, the Cambodians immediately began practicing classical dance. “We couldn’t wait,” Chheng Phon recalls, “Dancing was the only way to fight emotional illness.”
In 1981, Chheng Phon agreed to become minister of Information and Culture in the new government. The devout Buddhist intellectual was hardly a communist, nor did he like the control that the Vietnamese--Cambodia’s traditional enemy--were exercising in Phnom Penh. But like many who didn’t flee, he kept his counsel and joined the government because he believed it was the best way to rebuild the country.
The new partnership with the government was a delicate balancing act. In both the camps and Phnom Penh, the traditional hierarchy separating high and popular art was temporarily abandoned as a luxury. “Chheng Phon persuaded classical dancers like me to learn folk dance because there were so few teachers still alive,” says Proeung Chhieng.
But in Phnom Penh, the decision to mix the traditions wasn’t just practicality. Chheng Phon and the dancers were afraid that the new government, like the Khmer Rouge, might be hostile to classical dance. Cambodian folk dancing, with its representational stories from village life, was closer to the tradition of “people’s art.” They decided it would be easy enough to insert a few of the new government’s revolutionary slogans into folk songs and the lyrics sung to introduce classical dance, just as artists had done in the past to pay tribute to the king. Chea Samy wrote many of the new lyrics.
At recitals for visiting Soviet bloc VIPs, Russian flags were flown, children released peace doves and slogans about peace and brotherhood echoed Vietnamese communist tradition. “There were some songs about ‘congratulation to communism,’ ” shrugs Samy. “But Cambodian dancers have always danced to encourage soldiers. When the king comes back, we’ll sing to him again,” she says impishly. What remained sacrosanct were the ancient movements and myths of Cambodian classical dance itself.
“There were a lot of discussions, and some Vietnamese experts said they wanted to help revive Cambodian art and culture,” says Proeung Chhieng. But the Vietnamese--whose original artistic roots are Chinese and, in modern times, French--had little understanding of what was authentically Cambodian. “They suggested they could buy us all ballet shoes--they thought we danced barefoot because we were poor,” laughs Chhieng. “They didn’t understand that in our dance the entire leg and foot is part of the ritual effect and wearing a shoe would destroy the line.”
But the concessions made were too much for some to stomach. Vorn Savay had by 1981 decided she had to leave Cambodia. “I hated the Vietnamese,” she says now. “I thought they would destroy our culture.” Her younger sister Vorn Savong, now a star apsara with the national troupe, decided to stay behind to dance and take care of their mother. (The two sisters and their mother were all that were left of their family after the Khmer Rouge.)
Savay and her husband, also a dancer, settled in the Site 2 camp on the Thai border, entering the ferocious arena of refugee politics. Cambodian leaders who opposed the Phnom Penh government had set up operations in the camps and were recruiting supporters overseas. Prince Sihanouk, from his perch in Peking, formed a Machiavellian coalition of anti-Phnom Penh foes, including even the Khmer Rouge and the right-wing military men the United States had encouraged to overthrow him in 1970.
Savay remembers struggling to teach dance to children in the camps who had been so traumatized they had no memory of Cambodia, no context for the ancient movements. Politics was another impediment: Each camp had been taken over by a different political faction and dancing in one meant being barred from the others. “Bopha Devi was teaching in Site B (a camp controlled by the Sihanoukists), but because she was a high official in their party, she couldn’t teach in our camp,” Savay says sadly. Savay and her husband eventually formed their own troupe, and she was able sometimes, through U.N. support, to arrange to teach in other camps.
Overseas and in the camps, tales of the doctored lyrics and toe shoes infuriated Cambodians. Rumors flew: that the Phnom Penh dancers were no longer barefoot, that the traditional pin peat orchestra of flute and percussion had been replaced by pianos and that classical dance had been “Vietnamized.” By the mid-'80s, the political and artistic divide between those who stayed in Cambodia and those who fled had become a chasm. Refugees thought those who stayed were collaborators. To those inside Cambodia, the refugees, especially those who had left Southeast Asia, had sold out their country for material comfort.
The rift has still to be bridged. Repatriated to Phnom Penh last spring by the United Nations, Vorn Savay tells a story about the time under the Khmer Rouge when she lay dying from malaria and starvation. She felt that if she could perform a sampeah kru she might survive. Dancers perform this ceremony in honor of their teachers, their ancestors and the gods asking their spirits to enter them so they can dance. Savay knew she couldn’t tell the Khmer Rouge it was a classical dance ritual, so she said it was a folk remedy, which the cadres were encouraging to stamp out Western medicine. She lit incense and candles, made offerings of coconut and betel nut, and whispered the chants to herself. Slowly, she recovered.
The teacher to whom she secretly dedicated that ceremony was Chea Samy.
But Vorn Savay still has not visited her old teacher since she returned months ago to Phnom Penh. “It is not the time yet,” she says.
FROM THE TIME OF ANGKOR, Cambodian classical dancers have performed a sacred dance, the Buong Suong, which in Khmer means “paying respect to the heavenly spirits.” In its original, royal version, it was a ceremony with hundreds of dancers, held as an offering to the gods to end drought or reverse other inauspicious conditions. Ordinary Cambodians could perform a Buong Suong as well, making a temple offering to the spirits so that a wish might be granted.
The sacred ritual began with a slow, elegant procession, each dancer carrying a silver tray of offerings. Holding the trays above their heads while they danced, they presented the offerings to the four directions. Three dances followed: The Thunder God leapt upon the scene with his magic ax and his legion of courtiers, then the Goddess of the Waters glided in with her sparkling ball of crystal and her many followers, then the King of the Deities made his entrance, brandishing a sword and commanding many soldiers.
The ritual culminated in a battle between the Goddess of the Waters and the Thunder King: Three times the goddess threw her crystal ball into the air and caught it, symbolizing three flashes of lightning that blinded the Thunder King and knocked him to the ground. But he rose again, in the eternal contest between thunder and lightning, violence and gentleness, male and female. From their heavenly warfare came the rainfall that made the earth fertile and caused the rice to grow.
The Buong Suong is still danced in Phnom Penh today. Shortened to a mere 20 minutes, and usually part of a revue including folk dances, its meaning is presented in abstract, secular terms: as an ancient Cambodian myth about the rain and as a dance for national tranquility.
Dancing the Buong Suong took on new intensity in the spring of 1990. Real peace in Cambodia seemed suddenly at hand. In Southeast Asia, the end of the Cold War was leading to a major realignment of power: the Vietnamese had begun withdrawing from Cambodia and the traditional supporters of the Khmer Rouge and other anti-Phnom Penh forces--notably China and the United States--cut off military aid. A breakthrough in peace talks in Paris between warring Cambodians seemed imminent.
At about the same time, Sam Ang Sam, one of Cambodia’s best known classical musicians, and his wife, dancer Chan Moly Sam, who had been performing in the United States since 1977, were helping to make arrangements for a troupe of dancers from Phnom Penh to dance at that year’s L.A. Festival. The year before, the Sams, defying the hostility of Cambodian refugees to the Phnom Penh government, had gone to Cambodia and had tearful reunions with their former colleagues and teachers. “We just thought about how beaten down people must be there, and the old teachers dying, and we wanted to go.”
When New Yorker Eileen Blumenthal, who had gone to Phnom Penh in the late ‘80s to write about Cambodian dance, heard that the dancers were coming to Los Angeles, she got the idea for a national tour. To help organize it, Blumenthal hooked up with John McAuliff, head of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project, who was campaigning for a resumption of diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam and, since 1979, the Phnom Penh government.
Invited to extend the tour beyond Los Angeles, the Cambodians accepted. The Phnom Penh government was only too happy, in the Sihanouk tradition, to have the dancers serve as goodwill ambassadors. The Bush State Department, after many political machinations--including denying a visa for Chheng Phon, now a minister in a government with no diplomatic relations with the United States--issued visas to the dancers.
What Blumenthal and Sam Ang Sam saw as arts diplomacy McAuliff envisioned as a grand symbol of political reconciliation. The tour would represent a meeting ground for the rabidly anti-Phnom Penh refugee community and Cambodians at home. But from its first preview performance, in Long Beach in September, 1990, it was war, not peace through which the troupe had to dance. Refugees mobbed the auditoriums--some as fans, some as disrupters. Dancers’ lives were threatened, and security guards had to be hired to protect them. An organized campaign to get the dancers to defect, reminiscent of the pressure on Soviet ballet dancers at the height of the Cold War, dogged the troupe all across the country.
Souvanthy Meng, one of five dancers who eventually sought asylum in the United States, says he was approached in Seattle by a Cambodian refugee who assured him that immigration lawyers were standing by to help anyone who wanted to stay. It would turn out that Meng, and brother and sister Thonnara and Rachana Hing, who also chose to stay, had decided even before they left Cambodia that they would try to defect if given a chance.
Interviewed last winter in their new home of St. Paul, Minn., the three dancers reminisced about the epic decision that would exile them from their country and art. Their biggest fear was that if they refused to return to Cambodia there would be reprisals against their families. (Cambodian secret police did interrogate their families after the dance troupe returned without them.) The three gave a variety of reasons they wanted to stay, like “freedom” and “escape from war.” But once Thonnara and Rachana started enthusing, politics went out the window:
Thonnara: “We got here--America! It looked like heaven!”
Rachana: “Skyscrapers!” “Telephones everywhere!” “Cars everywhere!” “The freeways-- Wow !”
“These were survivors of a holocaust, from a poor country,” says Eileen Blumenthal, “treated like celebrities, swept into mansions with leather sofas, king-size beds, cordless phones. The refugees were giving them anything they wanted--clothes, shoes, money--as much as $1,000 a week per dancer, which is a fortune in Cambodia. We tried to explain that everyone doesn’t live like that here--about the homeless--but they were reeling.”
By the time the troupe hit St. Paul, the dancers, who had been chafing at security restrictions, were allowed to stay overnight in Cambodian-American homes alone. That made it easy for Meng and the two Hings to get all the information and support they needed. At midnight, the night before the troupe was to leave for the East, the Hings heard a rumor that Meng was going to leave that night. They were afraid that once one dancer defected, security would be too tight for anyone else to escape.
At 2 a.m., Thonnara crept out of his room in his pajamas, barefoot with a towel around his neck as if he were going to the bathroom, and tiptoed down the hotel’s service stairs. Rachana jumped into the elevator, but was so nervous she pushed “up” instead of “down.” When the doors opened, she expected to be grabbed by security, but instead Meng, loaded down with luggage, jumped on. They both were so paranoid, they pretended not to recognize each other. Outside, the three were spirited away by Cambodian refugees, one of whom Rachana was to marry six months later.
When the troupe boarded the bus the next morning, three dancers were missing. The tour continued to unravel. In Lowell, Mass., dancer Meas Masady--whose sister, a Cambodian refugee living in Canada, had encouraged her to defect--stepped out of a restaurant where a party was being held for the dance company and into a police car waiting conveniently outside. In New York, a Cambodian refugee tried to kidnap Yim Devi, the star of the troupe.
By this time, McAuliff had become a lightning rod for anti-Phnom Penh refugees and others. They accused him of being an operative of the Phnom Penh government and of trying to stop the dancers from defecting. Under pressure from then-New York Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, a longtime foe of resuming diplomatic ties with Cambodia, immigration officials were called in to interview all the dancers to see if they wanted to stay and if they qualified for political asylum.
In the final catastrophe, the young Yim Devi, whom Cambodians agree is one of the two best classical dancers of this century, decided to remain in the United States after the tour was over.
Tim Carney, a Khmer-speaking former American diplomat, who was called in by immigration officials to interview the dancers, concluded that none of the dancers were being held captive and that most of them were annoyed or frightened by the pressure from refugees. Last spring, in Phnom Penh, where he was working for the United Nations, Carney said, “no one (among the dancers) seemed to be threatened with political persecution in Cambodia and any questions they asked all suggested personal reasons for seeking to stay in the U.S.” But the dancers were quickly given political asylum by the Bush Administration.
LIKE CAMBODIA ITSELF, Khmer classical dance is facing wrenching conflicts between its feudal, monarchist past and a more democratic future. Some doubt that classical dance can survive in a poor country like Cambodia outside the royal tradition. Jacques Brunet, a French anthropologist who did research on the dance during Sihanouk’s reign, argues that in its highest form, classical dance didn’t survive the end of the monarchy. “This isn’t a secular, democratic art,” he says sadly.
Australian enthnomusicologist William Lobban, who lives in Phnom Penh, vehemently disagrees. Lobban, who is videotaping Chea Samy and other elderly artists for an archive of Cambodian dance, says: “Brunet is a royalist. Many of the anthropologists of that age are nostalgic for the old French time.”
Chheng Phon admits that “we haven’t finished rebuilding,” but believes that Cambodian dance can still recapture the world-class quality of the royal period.
But gone are the lavish days of royal patronage. In Phnom Penh, the government supports dancers, teachers, the dance school and the national company, but at such a low level that many dancers have other jobs. There is no money now for touring the provinces. A few Western friends donate money: Lobban buys sequins and velvet for costumes on trips abroad.
In the United States, Yim Devi was shocked to learn that the American government doesn’t support its dancers. The only Cambodian-American classical dance group that tours--the Sams’ Apsara Ensemble of Washington, D.C.--is well-respected but struggling. Bookings pay so little that only a handful of dancers can perform, instead of the traditional 30 to 40. The dancers must work at minimum-wage jobs and study English, which makes it hard to go on the road.
The five defectors--plus a sixth dancer, Sophiline Shapiro, who moved to Los Angeles to marry Toni Shapiro’s brother--teach and perform at local schools for free to keep the classical tradition alive. The dancers are homesick for the Phnom Penh dance community. The harshness of a Cambodian dancer’s life in America makes Devi sometimes feel like an apsara who wants to fly back to heaven and stop dancing.
Still, most Cambodian dancers are determined to preserve the dance as part of their artistic heritage. In Phnom Penh, they continue to play a ceremonial role at state occasions. Abroad, Cambodian parents want their daughters to learn dance as a way of staying Cambodian. But most kids prefer pop culture: in America, rock and hip hop; in Phnom Penh, Asian MTV and Thai disco. Chheng Phon worries about the materialistic frenzy set off by the U.N. presence and the prospects of development and tourism should peace come. “You can’t keep the sky from raining. But you can give people an umbrella. Materialism leaves people feeling spiritually empty.”
“Most dancers don’t feel like apsaras any more,” Proeung Chhieng admits. But so far, Khmer classical dance has preserved its spiritual tradition even though, in an increasingly secular culture, the audience may see it as entertainment. Chan Moly Sam believes that Khmer dancers still don’t perform to express themselves or to entertain like Western artists, but to offer devotion to their teachers, their ancestors and their ancient heritage. Buddhist values remain a way of life for Cambodian dancers, just as they do for most Cambodians. “The important thing is not a ritual relation to the king,” argues Chheng Phon, “but that spiritual purity must be preserved.”
Reconciliation eludes the dancers, just as it still does many Cambodians. Talks about uniting Vorn Savay’s company with Phnom Penh dancers broke down last spring. Savay is now allied with Sihanouk’s party, the Phnom Penh government’s major political competitor. Sihanouk personally intervened to put Savay’s troupe on the program with Phnom Penh dancers when they danced in February for French President Francois Mitterrand. But Savay’s troupe was assigned only folk dances, even though Savay still dreams of dancing as an apsara again.
The Sams are closer to realizing the dream of reconciliation. The Apsara Ensemble brought five Phnom Penh dancers and teacher Chea Samy to the United States last summer. Samy had a tearful reunion with her student Yim Devi in Washington. The ensemble and New York’s World Music Institute are raising money for an American tour in the summer of 1994, in which 25 to 30 classical and folk dancers, half from Phnom Penh and half from the United States, will dance together. “It’s simple,” Sam Ang Sam says. “We are dancers. We dance.”
The same spirit animates dancers in their homeland. It is minutes before apsaras will glide onstage at the Bassac Theater on a sweltering spring evening. Forty or so Western tourists, who know nothing of this tradition except the few lines about each dance fragment in the poorly mimeographed program, seem lost in the cavernous, dimly lit theater. Backstage, the dancers light incense and perform a sampeah kru. A worn-out music tape instead of a pin peat orchestra begins to scratch away in the gloomy auditorium. As Vorn Savong and the other apsaras materialize with their beatific smiles, it is as if the spirits of her sister Savay, Bopha Devi, Yim Devi and all the dancers before them are present, too. Their crowns seem of pure gold, their sarongs of the finest silk and their sinuous movements divine. Beauty slips in for a second, and they dance.