Fri, 23 Nov 2001


================ Robin McDowell Associated Press New York ----------------

From the darkness appears Mera, a mythical ancestor of Cambodians, flanked by two other dancers dressed in ornate costumes of silk and gold. With a serene half-smile, she lifts her left leg behind her, flexing her foot until it forms a small flat shelf.

As her body falls and rises to the sound of the musical ensemble, the audience is transported back a thousand years when celestial dancers entertained god kings, ruling an empire three times the size of present-day Cambodia.

Yet it is hard to watch the performance by Sok Sokhoeun, one of 42 members in the Cambodian dance troupe now touring the United States, and not see the performance framed by the country's tragic past.

Cambodian theater, music and dance suffered a mortal blow when the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and tried to turn the country into an agrarian utopia. During their nearly four-year reign, close to two million people died of starvation, disease, overwork or execution.

Like other artists, dancers were singled out by the radical revolutionaries who wanted to destroy every vestige of Cambodia's centuries-old culture.

"Classical dance was on the verge of extinction," said Chhieng Proeung, 51, the tour's artistic director and one of only 30 dancers and teachers to survive. His parents, 12 brothers and sisters and most of his relatives were killed.

"It hasn't been easy, but we're very proud of what we've achieved in the last 20 years - especially that we've been able to train a new generation of dancers."

Proeung, who was a principal dancer with the Royal Cambodian Ballet in the 1960s, was studying in China when the Khmer Rouge came into power. He went on to study choreography in North Korea.

When he returned in June 1978, he was sent to a labor camp, where he managed to stay alive by concealing his identity. Six months later, Vietnamese-backed troops "liberated" the country. Almost immediately, Proeung and other artists began to regroup. They were devastated by their losses. The small number of dancers who survived were scattered across the countryside, their bodies and minds weak from years of near-starvation.

"I met some teachers and former friends and slowly we worked together to rebuild our culture," said Proeung, adding that they pieced together what they could remember of moves and performances to re-create dances, many of which dated to the 1950s and 1960s.

But the origins of the dances go back much further. Gestures, such as bending back supple fingers in gentle curves, can be seen in more than 1,500 apsara carvings on the 10th-century temples of Angkor Wat during Cambodia's glory years.

In 1980, Proeung and six other teachers helped to establish the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. But subsequent war kept the country one of the world's poorest, leaving little public funds to develop the arts. Still, much has been accomplished. Today the school has more than 40 teachers and hundreds of students.

In their rickety practice hall in Phnom Penh, rows of young dancers, some as young as five, assume the classical poses as a white-haired teacher maneuvers their hands and feet into position.

"Come on! Let's start," Keo Malis, the university's dance director, tells two dancers as they prepare a performance of an episode from Cambodia's version of The Ramayana, the 400-year-old Indian epic about war and love.

Wearing a skintight shirt, the color of the rich green palm trees outside, and loose pantaloon, 21-year-old Keo Thida appears slowly from behind the red curtain. She moves gently to the beat of a large classical drum that resonates through two giant, dust- covered loudspeakers in the corner.

Seconds later, Phon Sopheap, 20, in the role of Hanuman, the white monkey general, jumps from the other corner of the stage.

The mood is upbeat - despite the limited resources. Teachers earn a mere US$15 to $25 a month.

"In this school, if you talk about money no teacher would want to come to work," said Keo Malis. "But what keeps us motivated and going are our souls and spirit because we live and die with (the dance)."

Dancers this year have toured Australia, Czechoslovakia, France, India, Russia, Japan and the United States, among other places.

On the Net: Cambodian dance: