Watch the 1000-year-old dance tradition nearly killed by the Khmer Rouge
When I asked Cambodian dancer Charya Burt to bring two classical outfits to our video shoot at the studio last month, I was baffled when she hesitated. My first hint that I had not only been naive but culturally insensitive was the sight of Burt and her sister walking toward the studio, laboring under the weight of numerous stuffed satchels and rolling a suitcase. When the bags were opened, they overflowed with embroidered silk, massive gold jewelry and a couple of five-pound headdresses.
There were sewing materials too. For repairs, I thought, until Burt’s sister, Sotheary Au, took up needle and thread and began sewing the dancer into her costume.
Burt’s sister worked as a dresser for Khmer Arts Ensemble in Takhmao, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and she has continued in the profession since relocating to the U.S. 10 years ago. Classical Cambodian dancers are sewn into their costumes for each performance. The process can take two to three hours to complete, depending on how many dancers will be dressed at a time. Most of the costume pieces are made by hand. When I joked that zippers and Velcro might do the trick, Burt gently insisted that such modern conveniences couldn’t possibly provide a tight enough fit for classical Cambodian costuming.
Classical Cambodian dance dramas are often based on mythology, Burt says, and talk about gods and goddesses and human themes like good and evil. One can trace Cambodian dance back 1,000 years to the courts of the Khmer empire, she says, where the art form served as a bridge between the king and his gods.
The traditional Cambodian musical ensemble, or pinpeat orchestra, is made up of wind and percussion instruments, including varying pitched xylophones, circular gongs, reeds, cymbals and barrel drums. The distinctive music accompanies classical Cambodian dance, shadow theater, temple ceremonies and male dance-dramas.
Burt lost her father and two brothers to the violent misrule instituted by the Khmer Rouge, who took control of Cambodia in the mid-1970s. Under their radical policies, artists of all kinds were targets of oppression, and Burt’s uncle, a teacher and director of the School of Fine Art, in Phnom Penh, was in danger. But he hid his identity and survived. After the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge, her uncle served as minister of culture and helped to reopen the school, now the Royal University of Fine Art.
Burt studied and then taught at the university, which remains the most important school of classical dance in the country. Just as her uncle helped to revive Cambodian arts, Burt says she feels “a responsibility to pass on classical Cambodian dance to future generations.” She conducts workshops for schools and universities in the Bay Area and is a dance instructor to Cambodian communities around California.
In addition to embracing tradition, Burt is determined that her art must evolve. She recently collaborated with puppet master Larry Reed and his ShadowLight Productions. Reed’s projected shadow puppetry provided haunting visuals for Burt’s script, based on her family’s tragic experience with the Khmer Rouge.
With a Center for Cultural Innovation grant, Burt created the piece “Silenced,” which honors the life of Cambodian pop icon Ros Sereysothea. It mixes 1960s Cambodian pop music with original compositions for guitar, and is danced in front of floor-to-ceiling video projections. The project was performed at CounterPULSE, in San Francisco last March.
More recently, Burt also developed a piece called “Blossoming Antiquities,” based on sculptor Auguste Rodin’s enchantment with the classical Cambodian dancers who performed in France when he was at the height of his fame, and who became the subject of over 100 Rodin drawings and watercolors. The dance is accompanied by a live pinpeat orchestra.
A version of this article originally appeared on KQED Arts.