Classical Cambodian Dance Survives Pol Pot's Killing Fields to Work Its Sinuous Charm on Americans

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Late one day in 1978, Proeung Chhieng looked up from the rice field where he was working in northern Cambodia. He had heard the sound of far-off gunfire. For four years, the former premier dancer of the Royal Cambodian Ballet had struggled to survive the "killing fields," the rural outposts where a million of his countrymen died under the despotic rule of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Chhieng himself was weak from illness and starvation. But now the distant rumble held out promise. "It was the first lime we realized anyone was fighting Pol Pot." he says of the shots. "I knew, finally, there was hope."

Today that hope is brilliantly visible across the U.S. as Chhieng leads the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia in a nationwide tour. For the first time in almost 20 years, the company is showcasing the magically sinuous dances to thunderous approval in the West. The art form has flourished since the royal court of Angkor in A.D. 802, when "dancers of the temple" were believed to be divine maidens linking heaven and earth. Their costumes—the tall golden crowns and luxurious silks studded with tiny mirrors-highlight the curved arms and angled legs that dramatize ancient myths. Says Peter Sellars, director of the recent Los Angeles Festival where the company started its tour: "No matter where in the world Cambodians are, no matter what has happened to them, nobody can ever take the dance away from them."

The Khmer Rouge came close. When Communist Pol Pot overthrew Gen. Lon Nol in April 1975, the murderous despot announced a policy intended to wipe Cambodian culture clean, establishing in its place a "pure" peasant society beginning at "year 0." An estimated 90 percent of Cambodia's intellectuals and artists were murdered. The Royal Dance and Chhieng, who had joined the group as an 8-year-old, were prime targets. He and his godmother, Khen Nep, one of the troupe's principal costumers, were sent to the northern Cambodian province of Kompong Thorn. "We lived on one bowl of watery rice a day," he says. "We worked all day in the fields. I thought we would never survive. Pol Pot burned almost all our books," he adds. "Our costumes were torn, in rags."

In 1979, when the Vietnamese liberation lifted the curtain on the Khmer Rouge's devastation, Chhieng and his godmother made their way back to the capital city of Phnom Penh. There he found one of his sisters, who told him that their mother, father and 12 brothers and sisters had died in the killing fields. Chhieng began to scour the city for his fellow dancers, but to no avail.

It was then that Chhieng and former Minister of Culture Chhieng Phon. whom he had met on the road back to Phnom Penh, decided to hold a festival in the hope that dancers would somehow show up. The result was poignant—and devastating. "Most of the master teachers who handed down the unwritten techniques and choreography were dead. Almost all the costumers were dead. Most of the dancers who came were sick and malnourished," says Chhieng. "It was very emotional."

Seventy of the original company trickled in, and Chhieng began to recruit new dancers. Most were war orphans like Ken Kunthea, 23, whose father, a teacher, and mother died in the killing fields. "The school became my family," she says. The master dancers began to teach the others the routines they remembered. Chhieng resurrected the role of the monkey, one of four principal characters in Cambodian ballet. "The monkey darts about looking into everybody's business," says Chhieng. "He is the conscience." The two costumers who had survived stitched together tattered remains of the dancers' bright garb. Then seamstresses copied them with fabric smuggled from Thailand. "Something powerful drove us—a feeling in the heart," says Chhieng.

In 1987, Rutgers University professor Eileen Blumcnthal, traveling in Cambodia for a book on its social history, discovered the struggling company. Blumcnthal helped raise $250,000 for the group, secure its invitation to the Los Angeles Festival and launch it on a national tour. Proeung Chhieng's dim hope of a dozen years ago has been validated. "The dance is the soul of Cambodia," he says. "And the soul always survives."

—Susan K. Reed, Doris Bacon in Los Angeles

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