The Royal Classical Khmer Ballet came to the United States for the first time on a grand tour in 1971. The dancers' glittering gold crowns and brilliant costumes studded with rare gems reflected the proud heritage of their gentle, fertile homeland of Cambodia. Their dance, an art form dating back 1,100 years, was a "revelation" to American audiences, a New York Times critic said at the time.
Last weekend the dancers performed once again before an American audience. This time, the crowns were only gilded paper. The gems were plastic rubies and emeralds. One musician played a flute made in a Thai refugee camp from a bicycle shaft.
Now calling themselves the Khmer Classical Dancers, they performed at the 43rd Annual Folk Festival at Wolftrap Park. The dancers are part of a growing American ethnic community made up of refugees from a war-ravaged Southeast Asia. Their sinewy movements and distinctive arched elbows were still royal, as in 1971.
The Wolftrap appearance was the first formal performance by the remnants of the Royal Classical Khmer Ballet since 1975. In that year, the Communist Khmer Rouge swept through the country destroying Cambodian intellectual life, dispersing city dwellers to work the fields and annihilating anyone associated with the ancient Khmer monarchy. An estimated one million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979, victims of murder, starvation or the hardships of the countryside.
Instead of 100 dancers rehearsing in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, 18 dancers, only three of whom were original palace dancers, now rehearse in a Lutheran church gym in Wheaton.
Almost 30 company members, including musicians and costumers, and their families live nearby in a 1950s garden apartment complex called the Blue Ridge Manor. There, on the day before the Wolftrap performance, the Buddhist dancers prayed before a makeshift altar in one apartment, asking for inspiration.
"It's very important to keep the troupe together," said U Vanna, a former palace dancer who now acts as director and spokesperson for the group. "The dance is our culture. It's our life."
The Royal Khmer Ballet is the oldest and best-known Southeast Asian dance troupe to find a haven in the United States. Closely related to Indian dance, Cambodian dance developed in the 10th century during the rise of the Khmer empire. When the Siamese conquered what is now called Cambodia in the 13th century, Khmer dancers were taken to the capital of Siam to teach dance, thus making the Cambodian form the parent of today's dance of Thailand.
Since the 1930s, the troupe had toured internationally as a showcase of Cambodian culture. Former head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk, now in exile in Peking, championed Cambodian culture and directed a film about the dance.
Efforts to release the remaining members of the company from refugee camps in Thailand began a year ago. They have reassembled slowly, settling in Wheaton. Last week, 10 more members and their families arrived from Thailand.
"It feels so good to be in this peaceful place," said Say Sara, one of the musicians who was a section leader for 15,000 Cambodians in Thailand's Khao I Dang refugee camp. "We had a very bad time in Cambodia. No one cared about us. But now we are here. We want the Americans to know us and who we were."
Other Southeast Asian dance troupes have reorganized elsewhere in the United States. A Laotian company called the Royal Luang Prabang Palace Dancers has settled in Nashville, Tenn. A Black Tai company, also from Laos, has organized in an Iowa refugee center.
"These dance companies are important for the cultural identities of the refugees, particularly in a multi-ethnic setting like the United States," said Amy Catlin, an ethnomusicologist and director of the Center for Muong Lore at the Museum of Natural History in Providence, R.I.
"Authentic Cambodian dance is about religion. . . . In the traditional dance, the life of the gods is glorified," said Catlin, who works with all Southeast Asian cultures in addition to the Muongs, a tribal group in Laos.
The handful of original Khmer performers and teachers who survived the last six years are crucial to the survival of the dance because none of the movements has been formally recorded.
Membership in the palace dancers was passed down through families and traditionally only women were dancers. An innovation of the last generation was the addition of three male dancers to the palace company. Dance exercises, which began as early as 7 years old, included bending the fingers backward to the wrist and arching the elbow upward from the joint to create the willowy hand and arm gestures unique to Cambodian dance.
Some of the surviving dancers were luckier than others. Peou Kathna, a white-haired woman of 65 who had been a palace dancer since she was 7, escaped with her daughters Sin Ny, 26, and Nith Kantiya, 22, both now dancers with the new company. All of the dancers lost family members.
U Vanna was working as a secretary in the Cambodian embassy in Saigon in 1975 when she learned there was trouble in Phnom Penh. Worried about her family, she returned to the city just before the Khmer Rouge began its policy of "purification." She was sent with her family to the fields although she knew nothing about farming. Under threat of death, she feigned illiteracy though she spoke both French and English, which she learned in Saigon.
After the United Nations established refugee camps in Thailand for Cambodians in 1979, U Vanna escaped to the Khao I Dang camp, where she worked in the hospital as a translator for German doctors. There, she watched for dancers among the new arrivals being checked through the hospital. Two of the first were Sin Ny and Nuth Rachana, one of the three male palace dancers.
Gradually, the group of dancers, singers, musicians, costume and mask makers and their families grew to 76 people in the camp. U Vanna began teaching traditional Cambodian arts and crafts to parentless children, finding enough young dance students to fill out a dance troupe for the camp.
In 1980, visiting Swiss filmmaker Jean-Danier Bloesch saw the Cambodian dancers performing in the camp. Convinced of their cultural importance, he made a portfolio about their history, which he took to countries around the world to ask for their sponsorship. In October 1980, the United States placed the dancers in a refugee category for special interest groups allowed entry into the country.
One of the first dancers brought to Washington was May Soneth, sponsored by the Buddhist Social Service, a refugee placement service. Originally, the dancer was to be located in Arlington near members of a Cambodian folk dance troupe but, instead, he was placed in the Blue Ridge Apartments in Wheaton. As more members of the company arrived, they settled with him in Wheaton.
A few of the dancers have already dropped out of the company to take jobs. Except for regular English classes, the rest are devoting their full-time attention to the dance troupe. They are receiving financial assistance from Montgomery County on an interim basis while they study.
Their most active sponsor now is the National Council of Traditional Arts, organizers of the Wolftrap folk festival. Catlin was hired by the NCTA to act as a liaison for the dancers and ethnomusicologist Richard Kennedy is the local NCTA spokesperson for the group. The company also has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts folk arts program and the Cafritz Foundation.
Future performances are scheduled Sept. 3 at the Library of Congress and Nov. 15 at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The group also will perform for Cambodian cultural organizations.
Catlin said her Providence office already has been flooded with requests from Cambodian groups to sponsor performances. "They say they need it for morale. It's a tremendous cultural support," she said.