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DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?

September 26, 1993|JUDITH COBURN | Judith Coburn is a journalist who first wrote about Cambodia in 1970. She has an Alicia Patterson Fellowship this year to report about Cambodia.

IT'S WEDNESDAY EVENING AT THE BASSAC THEATER IN THE CAMBODIAN CAPITAL of Phnom Penh, where classical dancers are finishing hours of preparation for their weekly performance for tourists. Outside, Thai disco music blares from boomboxes, motorcycles roar and neon from the garish dance palaces thrown up to service U.N. peacekeepers colors the distant sky. Backstage, in a tiny room, dressers who have finished wrapping dancers in heavy lengths of scarlet, gold or white silk are now sewing them into their costumes.

An elderly woman clucks in dismay over the sad state of the troupe's finery. Their papier-mache masks and their mkots, the tall, golden headdresses that look like tiny temples, are crumpling. Gone are the days of crowns of gold and rubies when the king--not today's near-destitute Communist government--was their patron. But each time a mkot is lowered onto a dancer's head, she presses her hands together and bows in the sampeah gesture of respect. As other performers wait, they gossip about a dancer who has left to join Cambodia's hot new video industry. The evening's program is announced: a pastiche of classical and folk dances, including the Coconut Dance, always a crowd pleaser.

Half a world away, on a Sunday morning, in a community center in Arlington, Va., Yim Devi, once heralded as the most promising young Cambodian classical dancer in generations, impatiently waits for her pupils. Devi, as is traditional at Phnom Penh's University of Fine Arts, where she was trained, is meticulously costumed, even for practice. Her blouse is shiny gold, and she wears a red sampot --a sarong pulled through the legs into trousers--and full makeup. Seven Cambodian children, all beginners, eventually arrive. Devi guides them through painful exercises to stretch their joints into the stylized postures of classical dance. Like a gardener shaping bonsai, the teacher takes a hand and bends it back, twists an elbow in, pushes a foot out. One 12-year-old grimaces, complains, "It hurts!" and gives up. She sprawls on the cold linoleum to drink a Coke. Devi frowns, and mutters under her breath, "They will never be dancers. They have no respect for their teachers and no discipline."

A decade ago, maimed by war and the barbarous Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was like a dancer who had lost her legs. Only a handful of artists survived the fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge, whose fall was followed by a bitter civil war. The Vietnamese-installed government was pitted against the Khmer Rouge, anti-Communist warlords and loyalists to the old monarchy. Dancers, like all Cambodians, were split, some joining hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps on the Thai border, some immigrating overseas and some staying behind. But all fought to keep their culture alive.

And now Cambodia is up and dancing. In October, 1991, a peace agreement was signed to end the civil war. To police the accord, the United Nations mounted its second-largest peacekeeping operation in history (only Somalia is bigger), marshaling 22,000 troops at a cost of more than $3 billion. Three hundred and sixty thousand refugees, among them scores of dancers, have been repatriated from Thai refugee camps.

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In Phnom Penh, the University of Fine Arts has been rebuilt and has just graduated its first class from the traditional 12-year dance training program. The Cambodian National Dance Company graces the royal palace and auditoriums around the world. And in the Cambodian diaspora, from Sydney to Los Angeles to Paris, Cambodian children struggle to revive the ancient art.

But the steps are shaky. After the signing of the peace accord, the Phnom Penh government balked at relinquishing power and the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm. Fighting continues. Elections held in May gave only a thin margin to supporters of longtime Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Old political factions still war over the composition of a new government. In late 1990, five classical dancers from Phnom Penh, among them Yim Devi, refused to return to Cambodia after a dance tour of America. Repatriated refugee dancers have not been able to reconcile with their Phnom Penh counterparts.

As Cambodians begin to grapple with their violent past, they now face even more wrenching change: an overnight lunge toward democracy and capitalism. U.N. peacekeepers have already sparked a materialistic frenzy in the country, akin to Thailand's and Taiwan's. Can classical dance, with its weight of Cambodian tradition but without its royal patronage, hold its own against Asian MTV, Thai soaps and kung fu flicks?

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