Sparkling beneath gold crowns, elaborate jewelry, and extravagant costume, the dancers move gently and gracefully. They portray celestial beings as inscribed in the stone of Angkor Watt, an amazing temple completed in 1150. Balancing so gracefully and rotating upon one foot, the crowd gasps in amazement as the dancers appear to be flying.
“Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia” is a project of the Royal University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh. Produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts, Asia Society, and Lisa Booth Management, the U.S. tour spans 12 cities for 9 weeks, Fall-Summer 2001. On Sept. 18, 2001, the dance company traveled to Texas for the first time when they performed at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Beautiful expressions and gestures. Breathtaking!” complimented Gloria Gonzalez, a member of the audience.
The fine art of Cambodian dance is not only an elegant form of beauty, but it also embodies power, strength, history, and culture through its ancient and graceful expressions. Cambodia, a former royal empire, has experienced much hardship within the last half-century, especially during the late 1970’s. Because of the Killing Fields, about 90% of the Cambodia’s artists died, leaving the fine art of dance almost extinct. Dance was only taught orally, so there was little documentation and few resources left for the remaining artists to revive their arts and society. Recovery and restoration is a slow and difficult process, which is ongoing today. Dance is a prayer, a story, and a refuge for the Cambodian culture.
The evening’s program included Robam Apsara, Robam Tunsaong, Solo Opakar, Chhayam, Robam Makar, and an excerpt of Reamker. A splendidly choreographed presentation of classical dance, folk dance, and live instrumentalists, the performers expressed their diligent work, skill, and timeless efforts through emotion and movement of the dances.
“Each dance requires about 2 years of preparation,” Sam Sathya, a classical dancer, explained. “I started dancing at the age of 11 and have been dancing for the past 15 years. By performing here, Americans begin to understand the emotions we convey through our dance. It brings me joy to know that we are alike.”
This tour is the dance company’s 2nd visit to America. Their first tour was in 1990.
Proeung Chhieng, the artistic director and choreographer of the group, expresses his gratitude. “Our sponsors have supported us greatly with our purpose to revive art and culture. Having worked very hard, we hope to express our gratitude, and strive to educate others. In addition, we come here to perform for the Cambodian-American youth, in hopes that they may better understand their culture and heritage. They’ve never had the opportunity to be exposed to this until now.”
A group of students from the University of Texas at Austin, including myself, had the privilege of attending the performance. My friends and I were awestruck and amazed the entire evening. “I have never seen anything this beautiful.” Darith Yim, a sophomore, exclaimed. “It encourages me to go to Cambodia and learn more about the culture, about our people.”
After the show, it was obvious that the crowd was utterly moved by the emotional and powerful performance by the Cambodian dancers.
“I feel as though I have a connection that I didn’t have before,” an observer commented. I agree.