When 41 Cambodian dancers and musicians arrive in the US this weekend for their first US tour in more than a decade, they only need to pack their costumes and instruments.
The tour’s US organizers have pulled together everything else the troupe will need for 28 performances, including a portable dance floor, modeled on the stone flags of an Angkorian temple.
There will be special lights, designed to set off the jewels and glittering costumes so integral to Cambodian classical dance.
The tour’s sets will be painted in the air itself, as an elaborate back-projection system displays huge photographs of Cambodian scenes and faces in an ever-changing backdrop.
“It will really be wonderful,” said Fred Frumberg of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, who is serving as tour director.
The troupe will have a week to rehearse with its high-tech sets before the tour begins with an Aug 11 performance at Wesleyan University in the US state of Connecticut.
For the first time in years, organizers say, US citizens will see that there is more to Cambodia than the Killing Fields or Angkor Wat.
“This tour is a fantastic way to build a cultural bridge between Cambodia and the US, to show that there is much more here than the temples,” said Frumberg. “We hope it will serve as a boost to future projects as well.”
The troupe will visit 12 US cities for performances drawn from Cambodia’s folk and classical traditions, including a 45-minute excerpt from the Reamker dance-drama.
The group will return to Cambodia after the final performance, scheduled for Sept 29 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
During the tour, the dancers will be featured at two weeklong events: the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket in the US state of Massachusetts, Aug 15-19; and at the Joyce Theater in New York City, Aug 21-26.
Frumberg said the tour came about because Samuel Miller, the executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts, has loved Cambodia for years.
Last year, Miller invited 15 Cambodians to serve as artists-in-residence at Jacob’s Pillow, a center for dance innovation in the US. Artistic directors from theaters across the US attended the festival, and the Cambodians were a huge hit.
The US tour grew out of that exposure, which Miller said offers a rare opportunity for US citizens to learn about the deep religious roots of Cambodian dance.
“The central role dance plays in sustaining Khmer culture is profound,” Miller said.
Through performances and study materials, he says, “this project will offer audiences vivid opportunities to experience and understand one of the world’s great performing arts traditions.”
University dancers have toured other countries in recent years, including a major tour last year to France, Italy and Switzerland.
But the US has lagged behind other countries in exploring Asian dance, although Frumberg says that is about to change. He points to the willingness of so many organizations to help pay the Cambodians’ transportation and other expenses as proof.
And, although he doesn’t know what the tour will cost, he said the airfare alone “must be in the hundreds of thousands” of dollars.
The US tour is the latest in a series of efforts by Cambodian artists and their supporters to revive and preserve traditions all but lost during the Khmer Rouge years.
University instructors say Khmer dance had not been particularly well documented before the rise of the Maoist regime, which sought to abolish Cambodia’s culture on the grounds that it was tainted and perverted by Western influences.
Most of the records that did exist were destroyed between 1975 and-1979, says Proeung Chhieng, vice rector and dean of choreographic arts at the university and the tour’s artistic director.
The handful of artists who survived are working hard to share their knowledge to the young. “In the past couple of years, the deaths of some of our remaining older teachers have pushed the younger ones to learn and record all they can, as quickly as possible,” Proeung Chhieng says.
The Wesleyan performance will be followed by the five-day stay at Jacob’s Pillow. Next the troupe travels to New York for a weeklong stay at the Joyce Theater, followed by a single performance in Portland, Maine .
The next stop is a two-day visit to Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts, followed by two-day trips to Berkeley and Long Beach in the state of California. The dancers will also visit Tucson, in the state of Arizona; Austin, in the state of Texas; Lawrence, in the state of Kansas; Hanover, in the state of New Hampshire and Washington, DC.
The tour is produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts, the Asia Society, and Lisa Booth Management Inc. It is funded by the Asian Cultural Council, National Dance Project, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Fund for Folk Culture.
For more specific information on the performance schedule, visit the tour’s website at www.asiasource.org/cambodia.