Dancing out of the shadows
Cambodia’s rich dance heritage was almost destroyed in Pol Pot’s killing fields, but the survivors have staged a remarkable recovery, as audiences at the Barbican can see this weekend, reports Jane Wheatley.
Pok Saran was 23 and a talented young dance student at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh when, on April 17, 1975, revolutionary soldiers of the Khmer Rouge marched into the streets of Cambodia’s capital and changed his life for ever. Along with millions of his fellow citizens, Saran was taken to a prison camp in the Cambodian countryside and put to work in the forests and rice fields. The interns were cruelly treated, given very little to eat and many were taken out to be shot. Large numbers died from disease and malnutrition.
The murderous Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, had little regard for life — “To keep you is no gain; to kill you no loss,” he famously said — and in keeping with his so-called Communist ideals ordered that all professional and educated people — particularly those with royal connections — should be eliminated. The Cambodian Royal Family had been enthusiastic patrons of the arts and 80 per cent of performing artists died during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Saran knew that at any moment he could become one of them: he lied about his past, claiming that he was a humble amateur, but it was his skill as a flute player that probably saved his life. “The commander of our camp was a Buddhist and had been the head man of a pagoda,” Saran says. “He was brainwashed by the Khmer and forced to be in charge of the killing fields. When he came back from supervising a killing expedition, he would ask me to play the flute to ease the stress he felt. I think this definitely gave me some protection.” Saran never dared to dance. “I danced only in my head,” he says.
This week he will travel to London as a choreographer for a season of Cambodian dance drama at the Barbican. This is something of a miracle: before 1975, heads of state from all over the world came to watch the famous national dancers of Cambodia, but Pol Pot destroyed his country’s vibrant culture and it has taken a quarter of a century to recover.
In 1997 Fred Frumberg quit his job as an opera director in California and travelled to Cambodia as a UN volunteer to help to rebuild the devastated arts scene in Phnom Penh. Three years ago he formed a production company to put on revivals of traditional dance repertory. “Classical court dance is performed by women,” he explains. “The male form of classical masked dance — Lakhaon Kaol — was not considered sacred in the same way and was not receiving so much attention, so some of the dancers came to me and asked me to find a way they could perform too.”
Frumberg managed to get a grant from the American Embassy — only $15,000 (£7,600), but in Cambodia a dollar goes a long way. “There was nothing documented,” he says. “So many people were dead. We had to go to the provinces and find the elder dance masters, bring them to Phnom Penh to help us with their memories.” The grant money subsidised the building of the troupe and paid for costumes and sets. Two years ago they gave their first performance and were immediately invited to Bangkok to perform there. It caused a sensation. A tour to the Melbourne Arts Festival followed and then the invitation to the Barbican. The presenters in each country pay for the dancers to come because there is no government funding. “The Government won’t even pay for passports,” Frumberg says. “A passport costs $100 — a lot of money for a dancer who earns $22 a month.”
Lakhoun Kaol is a dance drama based on tales from the Indian epic of Ramayana , in which gods and monkeys battle demons and ogres. Saran is responsible for the choreography of the giants: “The dancers do not have any extra height,” he explains. “They must represent their superhuman power, strength and arrogance just with their movements.” His colleague Proeng Chhieng is the artistic director and a monkey specialist. “When I was a small boy I loved the monkey’s crazy antics,” he smiles. “It was all I wanted to do, so I became an expert in the role.”
Chhieng’s grandmother had been a celebrated dancer at the royal palace. “My sister and I lived with her and she would take us to the palace to watch while she trained the young dancers,” Chhieng says. By then the Queen had decreed that the monkey roles should be played by men as they required special acrobatic strengths. The boy Chhieng was entranced. “When I was eight years old I donated myself to the palace to be trained as a classical dancer.”
From the age of 9 he was travelling abroad to perform with the company, and in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh, Chhieng was studying new dance techniques in Korea. When he returned to his native country, he found that his family had fled the city and soldiers were in charge. “I stayed in Phnom Penh with other students,” he says. “We grew vegetables to stay alive and kept our heads down.” When the Cambodian Army came to liberate the city in early 1979, Chhieng and his fellow students were taken by the Khmer soldiers to hide out in the forests; by the summer he had managed to escape and trekked to Kampong Thom province, where he had heard that there was a small community of dancers, survivors of the killing fields. They were led by the charismatic Chhang Phon, an elder master and respected dance teacher who was determined to rescue the traditional repertory that had once been his country’s pride and joy. By the mid1980s Saran, Chhieng and others had returned to Phnom Penh to the revived Royal University of Fine Arts to form a fledgeling dance company. There was no money for culture from a crippled national economy — the dancers were paid in kind — but they were back in business.
Twenty years on they have built up a company of 47 and a stunning repertory that is placing Cambodia firmly back on the international stage. The full piece lasts eight hours but Barbican audiences will be treated to an 80-minute episode called Weyreap’s Battle, in which the monkey king Hanuman and his forces rescue King Rama from the evil tyrant Ravena. “It is powerful, action-packed stuff,” says Frumberg, “full of acrobatic flair, often comic with translated narration.” Frumberg was speaking from Greece, where he is directing the opera Nixon in China. He is gradually weaning himself away from his role as a fundraiser and impresario for Cambodian dance. “They’re on the international radar,” he says. “It was all about capacity building; they can fly by themselves now.”