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Celestial dancers on American soil.

Among the people gathered in the rustic barn studio at Jacob's Pillow are very small children, high school girls, a couple of Gap salespeople, a supervisor at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, a person who works in telemarketing for Sprint, another who's getting a degree in computer applications, a master teacher for the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and the director of the Cambodian Network Council.

But whom do you actually see in the room so bright with gold and colored silks? Cambodian dancers and musicians: emigre professionals of a high order, children born or raised here, three master teacher-artists visiting from Cambodia. And on a July Thursday in the Berkshires, they're getting ready to perform Sampeah Kru, a pre-Hindu ritual in honor of their teachers - dead and living - and, by extension, the roles passed on and the spirit of dance itself.

The Cambodian Artists Project started at Jacob's Pillow in 1991. Its teaching-performing residencies in Cambodian enclaves across the country usually involve large groups of student dancers; this one centers on video documentation. The purpose of the project is straightforward: to preserve, develop, and pass on to the next generation a form born in the courts and temples of the Khmer princes who built Angkor Wat. But for the Cambodian artists living in America, like project director Sam-Ang Sam and his wife, artistic director Chan Moly Sam, the task has an urgency beyond the exercise of their profession or the usual desire of immigrants to keep their customs alive. Between 1975 and 1979, during Pol Pot's regime, an estimated 90 percent of Cambodian artists and intellectuals were slaughtered or died of disease or starvation. When teachers, dancers, and musicians were lost, whole chunks of the court dance repertoire, carried in their memories, vanished with them. Now, although Cambodia's economy is shaky and its political future uncertain, dance is once again honored. And Cambodian artists on either side of the Pacific have an expanded mission: to pool knowledge and resources in order to piece together their heritage.

To Cambodians, their dance and its music are something more than a beloved theatrical form. Says Chan Moly Sam simply, "If we were to stop dancing, it would change the course of our lives. The dance holds everything together." Beyond being beautiful, the form embodies historical tradition, religious practice, and spiritual values. The guiding concepts of serenity and equilibrium provide a moral framework for living. Dancer Masady Meas stands poised on one leg, settling her body into a gentle arrangement of curves. She's demonstrating the dancer's quest for balance, both physical and inward. As she sits back down, she says without a pause, "In Cambodian life, when you do something you have to balance first; you have to think both ways. Which one is right? Think first. Not so quickly."

But imagine yourself a Cambodian artist among your roughly 250,000 compatriots in the U.S. You embrace some facets of American life, accommodate to others. Many avenues are open to you and your children. Your work may be supported by grants from such organizations as the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. However, propagating your art on foreign soil is not without pitfalls. "Cambodian court dancer" is not a job description that promises your children prosperity. They go to American schools, where peer pressure may war with family values. What do you do when your daughter wants to cut back on daily practice so she can be a cheerleader?

The studio in the New England woods quivers with activity. The two xylophones - one with wooden keys, the other with bamboo - are set out for the ritual by Sam-Ang Sam and visiting master Tath Sum. Young women, including the Sams' two daughters, Malene, nineteen, and Laksmi, sixteen, check themselves in the mirror, tugging at their tight, short-sleeved silk blouses. After they have knotted lengths of shimmering fabric about their waists, they help one another twist the ends into a rope that they pass between their legs and tuck into their belts. They are quite quiet this morning. You don't hear some of the beguilingly anachronistic rehearsal-break chit-chat of yesterday ("You are such a creep!") or see such sights as the girls affixing Walkman headphones to beautiful Devi Yim, a former star of the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia, so she can listen to the Janet Jackson song that they know she likes.

Beautiful, strong of spirit, Chan Moly Sam has tucked a lavender plantain lily from the perennial garden behind one ear, where it instantly looks tropical (Laksmi says fondly that her mom has a thing about flowers). She is carefully arranging objects on the makeshift altar. Lights set up for the cameras catch the gleam of the temple-spired gold headdresses peculiar to various characters and illumine the masks of Ream Eyso, the Storm-Spirit, and Hanuman, the heroic White Monkey. With these are other items, like scissors and perfumed spray, so that during the ceremony the masks can be symbolically groomed. In come platters of fruit, a raw chicken with feet, a cooked pig's head (not easy to come by in the Berkshires). There's a slight delay, because it turns out that some of the teenagers have eaten the popcorn needed for the rite, but no one rebukes them, nor does anyone call out to impish four-year-old Amarin Sam, who makes his red plastic Mighty Morphin Power Ranger dance jubilantly on Hanuman's head.

Leading the ceremony, Chhieng Proeung, Dean of Choreographic Arts at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, names teachers, past and present. Many of those kneeling behind him weep. Samy Chea, who taught so many of these people, both in Cambodia and here, died the month before. The dancing today is in a way an offering to her.

Cambodian court dance is a study in elegance. Slow. Ornate. Refined. Hindu myth, commemorated in Khmer stone carvings, tells of gods and demons collaborating to renew the world. Grasping the head and tail of a great serpent, they wrapped it around a holy mountain; as they pulled back and forth, the mountain twisted, churning the sea of milk. Among the marvels that rose from the foam were a myriad of celestial dancers, or apsaras, symbols of the well-being of humanity. In a sense, the female dancer embodies these ancestresses. That is why Cambodia's kings maintained troupes of dancers. Centuries ago, they were both members of the royal harem and temple servants, their performances vital to ensure and affirm the monarch's divine power. For centuries, little girls have worked to make their fingers flexible enough to form arching, flowering shapes like those in the temple carvings, to make their elbows bend backward, to balance on one leg and bend the other up behind them with the sole of the foot as flat as a table. Some - taller and with more angular faces and longer hands - play male roles. Those with the strongest builds may take on the masked roles of ogres and giants. In more recent times, men have assumed the important role of Hanuman.

Contemporary stories attesting to dance's power are more likely to fire up the young American dancers. Most of them have a slight crush on Chhieng Proeung. They know that this erudite, charming man survived farm labor camp by using his skills at playing the monkey to convince the Khmer Rouge that he was an idiot. When the four years were over ("four years, eight months, and twenty days," corrects Sam-Ang Sam quietly), and Proeung, half-starved, made his way to Phnom Penh, almost his first thought was to search for colleagues; by 1980 they had already managed a ragtag performance for weeping crowds. Before long they had a school again. Anthropologist Toni Shapiro remembers visiting a refugee camp in Indonesia. "There were ten thousand people from Vietnam, playing rock n' roll music, some of them painting or writing poetry. There were only three hundred Cambodians, and they were dancing, making instruments, teaching their kids to dance. And these were not professional artists!" When Prince Sihanouk returned to the throne in 1991, dancers, in their golden and brocaded costumes, were among the official delegations at the airport to greet him.

Still, as Chan Moly Sam can tell you, little girls growing up in America may chafe at the restrictions and demands of Cambodian traditions and values (no dates with boys; be guided by your parents in everything until you are eighteen). She and Sam-Ang Sam were in the Philippines (he as a university student) when the Khmer Rouge took over in Cambodia. With the family settled in the U.S., Chan Moly Sam pressed her daughters to dance from the time they were tiny. Perhaps she, who believes so deeply in the harmony of the universe, in the connectedness of humans and nature, felt that she was fighting the evil in her homeland in the only way open to her. "It was a challenge, but I never gave up." Malene, the eldest, confesses, "Dancing was such treacherous, arduous work to me when I was little, because I wanted to play, and every morning my mom would make me crack my fingers, and she'd pull on my arms to make my elbows more flexible (because she saw that I didn't do it hard enough for myself), and I'd be crying." Between the ages of eight and thirteen, she didn't really like dancing, even though she kept at it every day: "I wanted to be Americanized and all that." The admiration of her schoolmates when she demonstrated Cambodian dances quickened her pride, and the visit of the company from Cambodia in 1990 was a revelation. She'd never seen such a large group of skilled dancers. "It was just so beautiful."

Her loving parents acknowledge that Malene has earned her independence. "I don't tell my children what to do," says her father. "We suggest, we advise; they will choose their own careers." Malene works at the Gap (as does Laksmi). She is entering the University of Seattle. The American dream is about to come true. And now, ironically, she's fascinated by her Cambodian heritage, and is showing herself to be a gifted dancer (laughing, she introduces shy, thirteen-year-old performer Thyda Chhuan, nestled against her, as "my fan club of one"). Now Malene doesn't have as many hours to practice as she'd like. She's torn. Who knows? She's been to Cambodia. Maybe she'll go again and stay longer - "after I get my law degree." She grins.

A future lawyer, however, is probably not how one summer night's audience sees Malene. She's dancing the role of the water goddess Mekhala, whose duet with the storm spirit Ream Eyso, when performed as a ritual, is supposed to bring rain. In the summer of 1993 her mother delighted Pillow audiences in this dance; Malene studied it intensively in Cambodia last year. As she dances on the outdoor platform, her delicacy belying the enormous strength that the opening solo requires (imagine standing on one leg and slowly sinking to the ground, back attitude unwavering), a wind suddenly rushes up the hill, and the skies open. By the time the performance - hastily transferred to a studio - is over, thunder and lightning are crackling all around us.

These days, Chan Moly Sam is mellower about training her children. With Amarin, a late, treasured addition to the family, dancing is a game. "Every morning when we wake up, we have a routine. He's the monkey and I'm Sita, and we go through a whole Ramayana story. He'll be somewhere playing with his toys, and suddenly the music strikes and he flips a cartwheel and salutes me and hands me the ring. We have been very good friends." She wonders what will happen when he starts school. During Sampeah Kru, when Amarin, frisking off to the side, hears music he knows and a low call from his mom, he grabs the man-sized Hanuman mask, settles it on his head, and starts dancing, his skinny little arms and legs moving confidently and quite accurately through the prankish steps. Although applause is not a feature of the rite, the adults all clap for him, and he beams.

Seeing the five teenagers costumed and dancing, you wouldn't think them anything but focused professionals. Yet if you ask them what part dance will play in their later lives, the word hobby comes up. Consider two of their role models, Devi Yim and Masady Meas. In Cambodia, these young women were stars, taken care of by the state to the degree that that's possible in contemporary Cambodia. Both defected during the 1990 tour here of the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia. Watching them in the beautiful duet Monosanhchetana could inspire any student dancer. In this lesson in courtly love, delicately erotic, Yim plays a Khmer princess, Meas a prince. Slender-waisted, fluent, their lips curved into that serene half-smile that graces some of the statues at Angkor, they look exquisitely composed. But they came to America to learn new skills, perhaps to feel secure economically and politically. Yim, who married here, is excited about being promoted to data entry. Meas, after she gets her degree, may focus on software. Stars they unquestionably are, but they aren't full-time dancers. Meas can't always practice every day. "If I feel tired when I come home from work, no."

Still, even as they dive into the American life and careers they crave, these two women feel that they must keep dancing and keep passing the tradition along. Yim works as a teacher and performer with Chan Moly Sam and Sam-Oeun Tes (her "adopted mother" and a powerful dancer) in the D.C.-based Cambodian American Heritage troupe. Meas teaches every Sunday at the Cambodian Temple in nearby Maryland, where children go to study the Khmer language and arts.

From their point of view, the teaching itself is a NewWorld experience. In Cambodia, students obey their teachers without question. In America? You must be kidding. Yim and Tes talk at the same time: "They say, `Why you change? You tell me before it was like this.'" "I guess they think this is a free country, not like in Cambodia. They're scared of the teacher here too, but at least they have a chance to answer back." "They can ask anything!" "Culture shock! The teacher has to understand ... It's really nice!" And they chuckle with pride and very little exasperation over this American assertiveness.

All these women understand that the customs that knit immigrant families and groups together may also drive them apart. Cambodian children in America can have identity crises. Pretty, jolly Somaly Hay (a great performer of giant roles, married to Chan Moly Sam's brother) puts her charisma and strength to work in the Cambodian community in Hartford, devising plays with children from seven to eighteen. Her positive-thinking scenarios bring classical traditions to bear on such problems as child abuse and drug addiction. Hay vividly illustrates the peer pressure she's combating. "Here, drink a beer. Why not? Smoke this. Easy!" But, she explains in a lively torrent of English and gestures, "You can have another side that can pull you in the right direction. You can control the situation. Hard? Yes, but everything hard. Never come easy." And Hay can always top children who complain. The Khmer Rouge killed her parents and sent her at fifteen to a work camp. "Hey, you think this is difficult? Three or four days sometimes no food, dear!" And she firmly believes that smiling can help heal you.

At Jacob's Pillow, the teaching never stops. In a spare moment during rehearsal, off to the side, gray-haired Kong Ros, a master teacher from Cambodia, slips behind Hay's five-year-old daughter Nicole and molds her flexible little body into some of the ancient postures. One early morning, in the middle of a path, Amarin, laughing mischievously, is kicking at Chhieng Proeung's shins. The great dancer, parrying with matching glee, subtly turns the game into something like the stylized fights of the dance-dramas, with Amarin unconsciously copying the master's form.

In working for themselves, their children, their communities, and to promote their art in America, these people also enrich the tradition. The two roneats (xylophones) offer a nifty illustration of cross-cultural accommodation. The higher-voiced one is fine and old, curved like a boat; the deeper one is made of unfinished plywood, its bamboo "blades" strung on rope passed through screw-eyes. The traditional version you'd expect to see weighs a ton and costs a fortune to transport. Marc Warren, a Pillow technician, made this to Sam-Ang's specifications. It collapses, and the Cambodians love it.

Gentle, scholarly Sam-Ang Sam has received a MacArthur fellowship. Of course, he's set aside some money for his family and wants to complete a recording project, maybe quit his job, or work part-time so he can finish his book on Cambodian music and organology. But, musing: "It's a lot of money, but it's not a lot of money ..." he's thinking how he might help the impoverished University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, where dollars stretch. The non-functioning infirmary ("If it cost $150 a month, I could fund that")? A research center? Small stipends for the needy second-ranking students? An annual prize?

That art and pedagogy also may flow back to the source is an exciting part of the enterprise to adults and adolescents alike. In the new Cambodia, students choreograph in the classical vocabulary, using traditional themes. A tiny percentage of such efforts, groomed by masters, may enter the permanent repertoire. So might works made here. Chhieng Proeung is enthusiastic about the concept behind Tep Kanhaka (choreographed by Chan Moly Sam, Somaly Hay, and Sam Oeun Tes with traditional music selected by Sam-Ang Sam): angelic ancestral figures descend from a temple carving to bless a visiting king and his retinue. (Chan Moly Sam, whose dream is to dance before the temple of Angkor Wat, says hesitantly, "I think we have - I shouldn't use the word corrupted - polluted ourselves, maybe. It's time to go back to the source, to the basics, to cleanse ourselves. Go back to the temple, to the inner world.")

At the end of Sampeah Kru, with hugs, smiles, and some tears, the teachers tie little white strings around their students' wrists. Blessings. Later, on a sunny porch, starting to rehearse, the teenagers tease and grouse good-naturedly. But proudly displayed on their made-in-America wrists are - how many, six? eight? - white-string bracelets: souvenirs of ancient rituals, part of their growing up in the U.S.A.

Since the events described in this article, the National Initiative to Preserve American Dance has awarded a grant to the Cambodian Network Council to film eight of the oldest dances from the classical repertory, four in Cambodia and four in Washington, D.C., affirming that the dance heritage of American citizens is a vital part of American culture. The Apsara Ensemble directed by Sam-Ang Sam and Chan Moly Sam has performed in the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, and all the dancers will, as usual, be part of Cambodian American Heritage Inc.'s New Year's celebration in Alexandria, Virginia, in April 1996.

Sam-Ang has released a CD and a cassette of Cambodian court dance music. In college, Malene Sam has found herself doing a lot of dancing - rejoining her family for performances, figuring in the opening celebrations of the new Seattle Asian Art Museum, taking her first classes in ballet and modern dance. Laksmi Sam hopes to major in communications and minor in theater at George Mason University. Amarin Sam, a kindergarten veteran, hasn't lost his taste for performing; he has switched allegiance from Power Rangers to Ninja Turtles.

Deborah Jowitt is a contributing editor of Dance Magazine and a dance critic for the Village Voice.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Dance Magazine, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Cambodian dancers
Author:Jowitt, Deborah
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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