Out of the ashes of the killing fields has risen the phoenix that is the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia. The mere existence of this beguiling 32-member ensemble -- the first Cambodian dance troupe to appear in America since 1971 -- is a miracle of persistence and fervor. Its performance Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater was both a fascinating look into the past and a testament to the hard work and artistry of a new generation of performers.
The company's roots reach back more than a thousand years, to a time when female temple dancers provided the conduit through which prayers were passed to the deities. Eventually these dancers would come to serve as both artistic jewels and harem to the royal court. In 1970, after the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk, traditional dance was supported by several government-run academic institutions. When the Khmer Rouge came to power five years later, the art form and its adherents were all but destroyed. During Pol Pot's reign of terror, 90 percent of Cambodia's dance teachers and performers were killed.
Just after the Khmer Rouge was expelled in 1979, a tiny band of survivors began working together to resuscitate their cultural heritage. Proeung Chhieng, a star dancer who is now artistic director of the Classical Dance Company, joined several remaining master teachers in training young children to perform the subtle steps and gestures before they were forgotten altogether. Today those children make up the core of the spirited troupe.
Part of these dancers' collective charm lies in their ability to swing back and forth between the austere, ultra-mysterious women's offerings, the stylized dance-dramas with their monkey kings and mermaids, and the playful folk dances. The Terrace Theater program afforded a generous sampling of each of these forms. Among the many highlights: "Apsara," a classical dance in which five serene beauties in unbelievably tall golden headdresses execute a series of sinuous hand, wrist and ankle gestures; "Chambang Pel Yup," an acrobatic, often humorous battle between glitter-garbed monkeys and demons whose ability to navigate from a deep-knee-bend position is nothing short of astounding; "Nesat," a quaint communal folk dance whose centerpiece is a marvelous flirtation scene between a feisty fisherman and a coy fisherwoman; and a duet from the classical epic "Reamker" that contrasts the angular, incessant body language of the masked white monkey Hanuman with the silky smooth gliding of the golden mermaid Sovann Machka. Most of these selections were accompanied by a small but vivid ensemble of percussionists, wind players and vocalists.
The presence of a great many Cambodian audience members lent the event another layer of emotional resonance. To see these men, women and children decked out in their finest garb, to hear them laugh and exclaim at familiar titles and movements, was a heartwarming experience in itself.