NEW YORK — Among some two million victims of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s were most of Cambodia’s artists. Much of their knowledge was lost with them, since Cambodian culture is still largely oral. But in the last few decades, new generations of Cambodian artists have sought to revive their culture’s classical arts and invent new forms.
An international festival designed to further that renaissance, “Season of Cambodia,” brought more than 120 artists to New York to present dance and musical performances, visual arts exhibits, film, theater, workshops and talks in venues all around the city.
Phlouen Prim, executive director of Cambodian Living Arts, which organized the festival, said his group wants Cambodia to be known in the world for its arts and culture “and not just for the killing field.”
“It’s been three decades of work, from 1979, when a few of the artists who survived came back to Phnom Penh and worked on the revival process,” Prim said at the festival’s opening at the Rubin Museum of Art. “Because we had that gap of generations, the difficulty was to connect the few survivors, the elder with the younger generations.”
The festival’s musical offerings ranged from singers chanting the sacred poetic form known as smot, to groups playing traditional Pin Peat wind and percussion instrumental arrangements, to a California rock band, Dengue Fever, which mixes Cambodian pop and American indie rock styles. Him Sophy, a prominent composer of classical Cambodian music, presented a new work in progress that combined traditional forms from his country with a Western chamber orchestra and chorus.
Dance is the cardinal art of Cambodia, and the festival includes troupes and performances ranging from the classical to the avant-garde. At the Guggenheim Museum, a new work called “Khmeropédies III: Source/Primate” featured seven male dancers trained since childhood to dance the role of the monkey, an important character in Cambodian legends.
Choreographer Emmanuèle Phuon worked closely with a Yale University primatologist, Eric Sargis, to study the movements of monkeys and apes from all around the world.
“In Africa, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, so monkeys they (the dancers) had never seen before,” Phuon said. “And Eric explained how these particular animals move or how they behave, and we observed that and made a dance out of that.”
New Yorkers also saw free performances of classical shadow puppet theater by the Wat Bo Troupe, one of the few remaining such companies. Against lit screens, performers wielded tall leather cut-outs that look like shields to retell stories from the Reamker, the Cambodian epic poem based on the Sanskrit Ramayana.
And the Royal Ballet of Cambodia made a rare visit to the United States to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in another work based on sacred legends, "The Legend of Apsara Mera," choreographed by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a former prima ballerina. Females take all the parts in Cambodian classical ballet, dancing as gods, princes, mermaids and ogres - all except for the monkey role, which is reserved for males.
“I can’t express how beautiful it is and I’m so excited, and I’m so lucky to have been here,” said one audience member, Khema Wright, at a post-performance reception. Wright was a child when her family fled Cambodia. “To see my culture actually here in the United States, in New York, it’s amazing. I feel so privileged,” she said.
Her friend Chhaya Chhoum, who runs Mekong, a community organization for Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants in the Bronx, agreed. “A lot of our community members talk about how they just want to live to die, because they’ve suffered so much,” Chhoum said. “And I think the art really rejuvenates and awakens peoples’ sense of community, love and trust for one another again.”
Members of Chhoum’s group helped decorate a sculptural installation, the “Flowering Parachute Skirt,” the towering effigy of a soldier, by visiting artist Leang Seckon. The grisly, whimsical figure, with a skull for its head, was made with a parachute that fell to earth during the U.S. bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam War.
Seckon invited Cambodian-Americans in New York to adorn it with fabric flowers cut from sarongs in his native village. The work was the centerpiece of a Season of Cambodia “ceremony of reconciliation” at Columbia University that included American Vietnam War veterans and Cambodians.
Arn Chorn-Pond, a flute player who is a founder of Cambodian Living Arts, was among those who spoke. “I never thought that the flute and speaking is power; I thought that only the burial of guns is power,” he said. “I was wrong.”
Chorn-Pond told the group how his flute-playing saved his life: first from the guards at the work camp where he was sent as a child, and later from his desire for revenge at the Khmer Rouge who killed his family, and the Americans who bombed his country. He was adopted by an American family but has since returned to live in Phnom Penh.
“The art can transform all of the suffering,” he said. “The healing would not be happening for me, I realize, if I do the things the Khmer Rouge want me to do, to kill and get revenge. And now I’m bringing music back to the Khmer Rouge, along the border, right in their face.”