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Friday, October 07, 2011

Cultural survivors: Angkor Dance Company preserves the traditions of Cambodia

Angkor Dance Courtesy, The Angkor Dance Company
 Flower petals scattered in welcome and nodding headdresses of gold offer no hint. Yet the dancers of the Angkor Dance Company, which performs on Monday at Rutgers-Newark, are lucky to be alive. These practitioners of a serene and beautiful art form are the children of people who survived the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s.

With unflinching brutality, the Khmer Rouge government sought to erase Cambodia’s centuries-old culture by slaughtering anyone with an education. Wearing glasses was enough to get you killed, much less knowing the elaborate, ceremonial dances associated with the Royal Court. Historians estimate that in only four years 90 percent of the country’s artists and intellectuals were murdered with bullets and pickaxes.

Today, however, the ancient dances through which Cambodia’s gods and goddesses bestow blessings upon the earth have returned. They flourish not only at the Royal University in Phnom Penh, but also among immigrant communities like the one in Lowell, Mass., where the Angkor Dance Company is based.

“To me, the story is so much bigger than just presenting another ethnic dance,” says Marisa Pierson, senior program coordinator at the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, the outreach group at Rutgers-Newark that is showcasing the troupe as part of a daylong symposium. “It’s all about the survival of culture against unimaginable odds. And these people have done it.”

Tim Thou, the father of Angkor’s current board president, Linda Sou, began learning folk dances during the years he spent in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. His grandmother, Katna Poeu, had been a classical dancer in Cambodia’s Royal Ballet, and also survived to immigrate to the United States. With her help, volunteers began learning the classical repertoire, piecing together a movement code that includes as many as 5,000 steps and gestures. Then they passed this information to their children.

Beginning in the 1990s, Angkor was able to import master teachers from Cambodia along with musical recordings and the elaborate costumes and jewelry required to perform excerpts from the “Reamker,” Cambodia’s version of the “Ramayana.” A dance master from the Royal University, Phousita Huy, now serves as the troupe’s artistic director. Still, the reconstruction work is not complete.

“We still don’t know all of the moves,” says Sou, who is 28 and has been dancing since the age of 3. “Our master has told us we’ve probably learned about 3,000 of them.”

That’s enough, however, to enact the legend of Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, dueling divinities believed to cause thunder and lightning; or to portray an excerpt from “Reamker” featuring the valiant Hanuman and his army of monkeys. Angkor’s repertoire also includes folk dances depicting life in the Cambodian countryside.

Monday’s events begin with an afternoon lecture and demonstration, where audience members can practice some of the steps themselves. Over the weekend, the Newark Museum is offering free admission and guided tours of its Asian Art Galleries in conjunction with the dance concert.

Pierson says that since the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience began presenting dance in 2004, the program has expanded considerably. “Every year we try to add something to make it more exciting,” she says.

Angkor Dance Company
Where and when:
Lecture and demonstration in the third floor Dance Theater of the Paul Robeson Campus Center, 350 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Newark, Monday at 2:30 p.m.; performance in the Bradley Hall Theater, 110 Warren St., Newark, Monday at 7 p.m.
How much: Free. Visit

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