It's a long way from Cambodia to T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, but the dancers with Cambodian-American Heritage didn't seem to mind.
It was, after all, a celebration.
The occasion was the Cambodian New Year and the debut concert of the Heritage, a group of dancers who, like many in its audience last weekend, had fled Cambodia over the last five years.
And for the audience, the performance brought with it a poignant, and lovely, remembrance of Cambodia.Like many maiden performances, the concert had some problems: It began 40 minutes late, curtain and lighting cues were sometimes mishandled and, by American standards, it was unusually lengthy. But the audience of nearly 700, the majority Cambodian, was clearly delighted.
Saroeum Tes, president of Cambodian-American Heritage, said one goal of the group is to preserve the culture of Cambodia for the many refugees who have settled in this country.
"We are fearing our culture will vanish," he said. "Our country was destroyed in two stages. First came Pol Pot, who was determined to suppress the ballet. Then came the invasion of the Vietnamese, who cared nothing for our heritage."
The performance provided an intriguing glimpse of that heritage -- the courtly grace of classical Cambodian dance, dances translated from traditional folk tales, the haunting tunes, and even a dash of comedy.
The two lead dancers were once members of the Royal Cambodian Ballet -- the most prestigious dance troupe in Cambodia before the communist takeover in 1975. The two, Sin Ny, a tiny but mesmerizing woman, and Nuth Rachana, who was a principal male soloist, have been among the principal artists involved in forming the Heritage. Their appearance clearly moved the audience.
In the ballet Mani Mekhala, Sin Ny was splendidly costumed and assertive as the Queen of Waters, who fends off a giant (Nuth Rachana), wearing a richly layered costume and a devil-faced mask.
Another group of classical dancers, portraying goddesses on the walls of the Temple of Ankor Wat, tantalized the audience with their interpretation of an old legend. The goddesses, according to the legend, come to life and dance in the moonlight.
Pointing up the marked difference between classical and folk art was a comic performer billed as "En." As a sort of peasant minstrel, he sang humorous Cambodian rhymes that drew roars of appreciation from the Cambodians in the audience.
Members of Cambodian-American Heritage include both professional and amateur dancers, singers and musicians. Many of them, after several years in refugee camps, have just arrived in the United States.
"They were all performers in Cambodia and most of them have just arrived in this country," said Norin-An, one of the organizers of the performance. "Some of the folk dancers came here two years ago, but most of these people don't speak English."
"Most of this group escaped through Thailand," added Voha Chuon, who is taking charge of the group's publicity. "They spent years in refugee camps before being sponsored and coming to the United States."
Cambodian-American Heritage is a nonprofit group, which initially will serve to bind together Cambodian refugees who settle in this area. But its major goal is to preserve the culture of Cambodia through music and dance.
And judging by the concert Saturday night, these delicate and lovely arts should find a warm reception not only from the Cambodian community, but from its new American neighbors.