by Karen Campbell
Beyond Killing Fields, Dance Endures
"If you know the culture, you know the heart of a country."
So believes Proeung Chhieng, dean of the School of Dance at
Cambodia's University of Fine Arts, and perhaps nowhere is that
claim more evident than in Cambodia, where music and dance is
the countries lifeblood.
The powerful and poignant new documentary "Dancing Through
Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia," explores
how Cambodians in the United States and in their native land
are attempting to rebuild their culture after the Pol Pot regime
and the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into "killing fields"
that wiped out nearly a quarter of the country's population,
including 80-90 percent of its dancers and musicians.
When the communist guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge took over the
Southeast Asian Country from 1975-1979, they abolished religion,
education, and culture in an attempt to wipe out any vestiges
of the pervious monarchy. In effect, they turned the country
in one vast slave labor camp, torturing overworking, starving,
and executing nearly two million people.
Because the country's cultural tradition was largely oral, the
death of master dancers, musicians, and teachers meant the loss
of priceless traditions. However, as presented in Janet Gardner's
compelling documentary, Cambodians are fiercely and proudly
determined to restore their cultural identity. The film chronicles
some of the more inspiring efforts, including those of the Angkor
Dance Troupe in Lowell, where an estimated 30,000 Cambodians
have settled, making Lowell the second-largest Cambodian community
in the United States, behind only San Diego. The film is a tribute
to survival and rebirth.
The film follows three generations of dancers dedicated to the
acrobatic role of the monkey, the only male role in Cambodian
dance. For Thavro Phim, dancing the role has helped him deal
with the loss of his family during the Pol Pot regime, enabling
him to connect with his personal history and the cultural traditions
of his country. For 13-year-old Cambodian-American Samnang Hor,
one of the Angkor Dance Troupe's rising starts, the dance is
a way to embody and share a past he is just now coming to understand.
For the few dancers who survived during the Khmer Rouge, by
either keeping their identity a secret, or using the monkey's
charming blend of magic and mischief to appeal to their captors,
reviving the tradition is a testament of freedom.
The film juxtaposes touching interviews with disturbing news
footage from the 1970s, archival material, and current documentation
of the cultural activity flourishing today. It manages to engage,
at one turn horrifying, at another uplifting.
The most memorable stories are those attesting to artistic
dedication, despite all odds. Master teacher Pen Sok Huaon,
enslaved by the Khmer Rouge, recalls: "Every time they
send me to chop up dirt, I would stop working in order to
bend and flex my arms because I have the feeling I would return
home. AT nighttime, when I was free from work, I usually sang
in secret each song that accompanied the dancers o I would
be able to remember them."
In the refugee camps, amidst the daily struggles for survival
against inhumane conditions and starvation, music and dance
were a priority. Those with the least bit of basic knowledge
would teach their skills to the others in order to keep the
culture alive. In turn, the culture keeps them alive. As Toni
Shapiro-Phim of Yale's Cambodia Genocide Program puts it,
"For those few hours a day, they were beautiful and in
by Chris Pasles
The power of Cambodian dance can hit a Westerner like a thunderbolt.
That's what happened to Toni Shapiro when she worked among survivors
of the genocidal years of the Pol Pot regime, 1975-1979, in
a refugee camp in Indonesia.
And that's what happened to filmmaker Janet Gardner when she
visited Phnom Penh in 1990 as part of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation
Drawing on Shapiro's work, her own experience and a number of
Cambodian dancers dedicated to preserving this endangered art
form, Gardner make an hour long documentary, "Dancing Through
Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia."
Working with refugees, Shapiro noticed interesting cultural
"Among the 10,000 people there from Vietnam, there was
poetry and painting and rock 'n' roll played on donated instruments,"
Shapiro said in a recent interview from her Berkeley home. "Among
the 300 Cambodians - who had escaped from these horrible circumstances
- there was dancing. They were performing for each other. I
was completely overwhelmed by this."
The Cambodians were not professional dancers, however.
"Mostly, they were people from the country side. For some
reason they felt this was an important thing to do in the midst
of this loss and inhumanity. I was moved to try to figure out
what the meaning of dance was for the people of Cambodia."
To do so, she wrote a dissertation, "Dance and the Spirit
of Cambodia," at Cornell University on the relationship
between war and dance in Cambodia from 1975 to the present.
That research inspired Gardner, a documentary filmmaker who
had gone to
Phnom Penh to take pictures for the United Nations.
"I fell in love watching the monkey dancers practice,"
Gardner said in a recent interview from her offices in New York.
"The little boys were just astonishing. They were just
so amazing, so mischievous. I was very captivated by them."
"The dance was astonishingly beautiful, and I knew that
it was threatened. The Khmer Rouge had wanted to kill anybody
who was an intellectual or an artist, or in some cases who even
wore glasses. During the Khmer Rouge years, artists had to go
underground and even pretend they were someone else, fake professions
and fake biographies."
Her film focuses on Thavro Phim, whose father, brother, and
grandfather were among the more than 1 million Cambodians who
died during the Khmer Rouge years. It follows him on a return
to Cambodia in 1998 for a reunion with surviving family and
A brilliant monkey dancer, Phim is now 28. He and Shapiro married
in 1997 and live in Albany, California.
"You cannot generalize about the Khmer Rouge years,"
Phim cautioned. "Not everybody was killed because they
were dancers or city people. Not everybody was killed because
they were intellectuals."
"It is very complicated. But it is true that after the
Khmer Rouge, 80% to 90% of the artists, musicians, actors, and
dancers died from starvation or were killed. Only a handful
survived, and immediately after the Khmer Rouge years, they
reopened the School of Fine Arts. They wanted this knowledge
to remain alive and be carried on."
There are four main roles in Cambodian dance god, goddess,
giant and monkey, Phim said. Gods, goddesses and monkeys are
good characters; giants are evil.
Cambodian dance is not just a form of entertainment, Phim said.
It represents Cambodian culture itself.
"As Cambodians, we feel, if the culture falls apart, the
country, the nation will disappear. It has a very important
role in society."
"To be a Cambodian dancer or a classical dancer, you do
not fell you are only a dance. You feel like you carry a very
important part of Cambodian culture in you. It's a way of connecting
the present tot he past, the people to their ancestors."
"This is a very critical period," he added. "Right
now, compared to the years immediately after the Khmer Rouge,
yes, I have a strong hope for survival of the culture. We have
300 young people in the dance school in Cambodia."
"But conditions there are still very unsettled. The people
are still very unsettled. The country must try and find a way
to strengthen itself. I'm not quite 100% sure that the arts
are going to survive. We need to be strong and have a strong
commitment to them. You never know what is going to happen."
Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness
of Cambodia will air at 3 p.m. Sunday on KOCE-TV Channel
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