A Determined Survivor Revives Khmer Classical Dance


PHNOM PENH Cambodia -- As she looks back across the 70 years of her life, Chea Samy can recall performing with Cambodia's Royal Ballet at the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington. She also can remember collecting manure for fertilizer as she struggled to survive the years of cruel Khmer Rouge rule.

Today she is credited with reviving Cambodia's classical dance -- the same dances as those seen in carvings of Apsarases on the walls of 12th century temples at Angkor.

Chea Samy

Chea Samy began studying her demanding art when she was six, as a palace dancer for King Sisowath Monivong. King Sisowath was the grandfather of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leader of one of the groups now opposing the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government.

By the time she was 30, she was ready to begin teaching the slow, sinuous movements of the Khmer ballet, performed to the music of an ensemble of gongs, xylophones, drums and singers. Their repetitive, rhythmic melodies are similar to those performed by the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia or classical musicians in neighboring Thailand and Laos.

In 1975, when the peasant revolutionaries of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge took power, Chea Samy's career was abruptly suspended. Like other residents of the capital, the 57-year-old dancer was driven from the city. She found herself on a farm in Kompong Thom province, north of Phnom Penh, where she was put to work with the children, collecting manure and compost for fertilizer.

"There was so much killing, I never thought I could survive and be a teacher as I am now," she says gently, her smile revealing none of the agony of those years.

"I survived because I hid my biography," she says. "I told them I had been a vendor in the market."

When the Khmer Rouge government was overthrown in January 1979, Chea Samy hiked for seven days and six nights to reach her native village of Choeung Prey in Kompong Cham province.

Only in April of that year did she venture back to Phnom Penh to look for her old house.

The government asked her to take on the task of reviving the nation's classical dance. With the help of a handful of surviving musicians who had remained in Cambodia, she has gradually rebuilt the ballet.

"I try to teach the students very seriously," she says, "so they will be even better than the dancers under the old regime."

She now has about 50 students, five or six of them advanced enough that they, too, can serve as teachers.

Aspiring dancers, who begin their studies as young as 8 or 10, start four hours of dance practice each morning at 7. In the afternoon, they attend regular school classes like other children their age.

"They never complain" about this demanding regimen, Chea Samy says, "because they want to learn very much."

Opponents of the present government -- some of whom have founded their own Khmer dance troupes abroad -- say only the shell of true Khmer dance remains in Phnom Penh today. The Khmer content, they say, has been replaced with Vietnamese communist propaganda.

Chea Samy responds patiently to the charges, acknowledging that the dancers perform some modern stories with revolutionary themes. But she insists that they also are preserving intact the classical dances -- both the longer depictions of tales from the Ramayana and the shorter Apsaras dances.

"Foreigners are always concerned about this," she says, "and so are Khmer living abroad. But when they see for themselves, they say there is no comparison."

Her dancers, she insists, are far better than the overseas troupes.

In Cambodia as in the rest of the world, videos and pop songs threaten to crowd classical music and dance out of public consciousness. But Chea Samy believes her nation's ancient arts have a future.

"We will preserve this kind of dance forever," she vows, "as a document for new generations of Khmer."

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 10, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.

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