NEW YORK, OCT. 11 -- Few in the audience at the Joyce Theater Wednesday night were aware of the implications and intrigue behind the simple photocopied page inserted into their programs announcing cast changes for the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia.

The red monkey danced the part of a demon and one of the handmaidens took a male role, but the dancers' serene faces and exquisitely controlled gestures camouflaged the tumult that has followed this troupe around the United States and dragged it into a political tug of war mirroring the conflict in the dancers' home country.

Four young dancers, among them Cambodia's finest artists, defected from the 36-member troupe last week, three in St. Paul, Minn., and one in Lowell, Mass. The tour organizers say other dancers have been followed and threatened at knife point, and have become focus of death threats -- all by Cambodians living in the United States.

"Those are four of our best dancers," Proeung Chhieng, the company's artistic director, lamented backstage after the performance. "It takes 10 years to make a dancer and why they must take them away? Why? Why {do} they want to break up our art? Our mission is humanism. It is not politics."

On its New York stop, the last leg of its national tour, the company asked for protection from the New York Police Department. Several uniformed and plainclothes police officers are now on guard during the company's performances, when the performers ride in their tour bus, and when they eat their breakfast of noodles and chocolate milk at the theater (breakfast at the hotel was considered a security risk).

Much of the attention has been focused on Yim Devi, whose fluid movements and alluring smile make her the star of the company. Devi says she did not say a word about the people following her and harassing her until Monday, when a man attempted to abduct her at knife point.

"An extremely aggressive campaign to embarrass Phnom Penh and, in fact, destroy the dance company has been underway," said Eileen Blumenthal, the tour's executive producer and a professor of theater arts at Rutgers University. "They want to get the star to defect. She says she has been approached just about daily by dozens of people -- men who say they are in love with her, people who tell her what a wonderful life she would have here. She showed no interest."

Proeung Chhieng will say only it is "the bad men" when asked who he thinks is harassing his dancers. But the conflict is far more complicated than the battles of good vs. evil that the company portrays in its enchanting traditional dances.

Proeung Chhieng is an energetic, wiry man whose face crinkles around his eyes and mouth when he smiles, which is often. A grandnephew of one of Cambodia's dance masters, Proeung Chhieng almost single-handedly has rescued classical Cambodian dance from extinction.

An estimated 90 percent of those who knew the art form were killed by the Khmer Rouge during the years of the "killing fields." From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed as many as 2 million people in a systematic campaign to establish a model agrarian society and rid the country of professionals, artists and intelligentsia. Proeung Chhieng lost both of his parents and 12 of his 13 brothers and sisters.

After the Khmer Rouge fell to the Vietnamese, ushering in the current government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Proeung Chhieng and others set out to revive traditional Cambodian dance. At the newly formed Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh, the few dance masters to survive began 10 years ago to teach children as young as 6 years old.

The best-trained dancers, most of them now in their late teens and twenties, were selected to join the U.S. tour -- the first Cambodians to perform classical dance in this country since Proeung Chhieng performed with a troupe at the Brooklyn Academy in 1971.

The tour, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and half a dozen private foundations, was planned for cities with large Cambodian communities -- Tacoma and Seattle, Wash.; Washington, D.C.; St. Paul, Minn.; Portland, Maine; Lowell, Mass; and New York City.

The company has performed around the country to sold-out crowds. Reviews tell of audience members weeping upon hearing music and seeing dances they thought had been lost forever. In some cases, members of the troupe were united with long-lost friends and relatives, most of whom fled Cambodia years ago as refugees.

But opposition to the current Vietnamese-backed regime is strong among these communities, which contain pockets of support for the anti-communist guerrilla groups now fighting the Hun Sen government but which have formed an alliance with the resurgent Khmer Rouge. Organizers of the dance troupe's tour accuse one of those groups -- the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) -- of encouraging the defections to embarrass and create even more instability in the current government.

"I don't believe that at all," said Lapresse Sieng, the KPNLF's ambassador to the United Nations, in a telephone call from Silver Spring, where he lives. "They {the dancers} must be willing to be lured. Or they are fearful to go back." Lapresse Sieng suggested that the tour organizers are fabricating the stories of intimidation. "They had to find some excuse viable to make the leader of the Phnom Penh regime satisfied."

Both Blumenthal and Proeung Chhieng admit that although they believe the dancers were encouraged to defect, none actually left under duress. Hing Ratchhana and Hing Thonnara, a sister and brother who defected while the troupe was in St. Paul, have relatives in the United States. Meas Masady, who got into a car and announced her defection in a police station in Lowell was accompanied by a sister who came to see her from Canada. As young people traveling abroad for the first time, they have plenty of other incentives to leave, Proeung Chhieng explained.

"During Pol Pot's time," when the dictator led the Khmer Rouge, "they were 12 years old," he said. "They don't know well about life. My country is still poor because of war. So when they come here and they see the beautiful city and the big buildings ... they are young ..." he said, trailing off.