During the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy the ancient cultural traditions of Cambodia. In fact, many believed that the beautiful ceremonial dance performed exclusively by the emperor's cloistered harem until 1941 and only in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh thereafter had completely disappeared, because the dancers had been executed.
Then, in 1979, Proeung Chhieng, artistic director of the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia and grandnephew of one of Cambodia's dance masters, began to reconstruct the historic national dance.
"We brought it back because of the love of the art," says Chhieng. "I learned it from my grandmother when I was 5 because she wanted me to carry on the tradition. At 8, I enrolled officially at the Royal Palace and was part of the court dancers.
"We continued the true performance until 1975," he says, "when Cambodia was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. Then the arts were no longer allowed to be performed."
Chhieng traveled to the country villages and discovered a few surviving dancers and some refugees resurrecting the dance. He even came upon the last living person who knew the original costume patterns. He brought them back to Phnom Penh and founded the dance troupe.
"The dance is sinuous," explains Eileen Blumenthal, executive producer of the Cambodia company and professor of theater arts at Rutgers University. "There's an interesting architecture to it -- sharp angles at the elbows, knees and ankles, and subtle curves -- lovely flowing, undulating curves in the arms and hands and the torso. The hands curve back so the fingers touch the wrists. So when the dancers put their hands together and the fingers curve back, it's almost like a flower opening."
It is believed that the dance dates to the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat -- "the most glorious period of Cambodia," says Chhieng. The movements reenact Cambodian legends or dramas from the Ramayana. Women play all the characters except monkeys and demons, which are played by men wearing masks.
The costumes are replicas of traditional coronation dress, with layers of silk brocade and velvets embroidered with tens of thousands of sequins and beads in elaborate patterns. The dancers wear golden crowns with spires.
"There are two functions of the classical dance," says Chhieng, "First for ceremonies. Second for the entertainment of guests of Cambodia."
"You have a sense," says Blumenthal, "that Cambodian dance is for the divine audience and we just happen to be privileged to see it."
Chhieng sees it as more than that:
"Dance educates the people to have good morality and good manners."
The Classical Dance Company of Cambodia is performing Tuesday and Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available at Instant-Charge. For information, call 467-4600.