Royal Ballet of Cambodia
Joseph V. Melillo
Executive Producer, BAM
IN 1971, a troupe of Cambodian classical dancers posed in Times Square for a photo that went on to become iconic for all the wrong reasons, as a symbolic reminder of what was lost later that decade, when the Khmer Rouge systematically targeted 90% of artists and intellectuals for extinction. The dancers were members of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, in New York to make their US debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the institution where I currently serve as Executive Producer. The story of how, 42 years later, twenty gifted young classical dancers assembled in Times Square for a recreation of the photograph prior to an engagement at BAM as part of the Season of Cambodia festival— a citywide celebration that brought 125 Cambodian artists to perform in venues across New York—is the story of the spirit and tenacity of a people who have faced unimaginable horror. It is the story of how one nation can come together to reinvent its perception in the world via the powerful, universal medium of artistic expression.
It is important to remember that at the moment that picture was taken in New York in 1971, Cambodia was flourishing as the arts capital of Southeast Asia. Over the coming decades, the devastating loss of life—estimated to be in the millions—suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime during the late 1970s had the ruinous effect of defining an entire nation with one ghastly image: The Killing Fields. It seemed that the image of those fields had permanently replaced any evidence of the rich traditions and cultural heritage that were nearly destroyed by a dictatorship that regarded them as symbols of free thinking and progress. To the world outside of Cambodia, it might have even seemed that the nation itself had disappeared altogether.
For former Khmer Rouge child-soldier Arn Chorn-Pond, that disappearance was a final indignity that he would not allow to become a reality. In the 1980s he founded Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) (today spearheaded by tireless Executive Director Phloeun Prim) in order to preserve the traditional art forms that were all but lost during the prior decade, when master artists where either killed or went into hiding. Chorn-Pond made it his life’s work to connect these masters with the emerging generation of artists—young, and in some cases unaware of the nation’s tortured history—in order to prevent those arts from quite literally disappearing. An act of transference began, and suddenly traditional art forms were being replicated or adapted through a modern view.
It is from this organic and incredibly personal place that the seeds of the three-decades-in-the-making festival were planted, and this is among the reasons I believe it has been such an extraordinary success. The culmination of CLA’s work and other arts revival initiatives took tangible form in Season of Cambodia— with traditional and contemporary Cambodian work presented by over 30 of New York’s leading arts and cultural institutions. Organizers estimate as many as 50,000 people attended—with highlights including a presentation of The Royal Ballet of Cambodia at BAM; a presentation of the Wat Bo Shadow Puppet Troupe at Winter Garden in Lower Manhattan; and the first-ever installation of a contemporary Southeast Asian artist’s work at The Met in a solo exhibit called “Cambodian Rattan” by prolific sculptor Sopheap Pich, on display through July. Works in dance, music, performing arts, visual arts, and humanities offerings lit up the city for two months, and left us aware of and inspired by the vital, undaunted artistic community remaining in what might otherwise have become a forgotten place.
Vital questions emerge: Could the festival actual provide a model for other post-conflict nations ready to reassert their cultural identities through the arts? Could a country like Afghanistan or Iraq rise in the same way one day? Can art actually heal? If the festivals many successes are any indication, the answers are undoubtedly: yes, yes, yes.
Fittingly, the festival took place at the same time that a story on the front page of The New York Times told of how Cambodian officials have gone about reacquiring once-looted artifacts that were then donated, in good faith, to The Metropolitan Museum of Art before it was discovered that they had been stolen. There is something very appropriate about the action of the officials to bring these statues, which currently sit at the entrance to the Southeast Asia gallery at The Met, back to their rightful home. And of course, one can’t overlook the poignancy of this development being initiated by a nation in the midst of reclaiming its cultural history.
Imagine, finally, the delicacy of a moment last month during the festival when the current Royal Ballet of Cambodia, in town to perform at BAM as part of the festival, spent a Sunday morning in Times Square, recreating that iconic photo from 1971 as a tribute to the dancers lost during their nation’s former dark period. The recreation was not only a fitting tribute to those artists, but also a statement of unquestionable revival—not just for their troupe, but for all Cambodian artists, not the least of which those who participated either in practice or in spirit in Season of Cambodia. At the end of these enlivening two months, it was apparent to all who witnessed it that the festival had, indeed, succeeded in telling a different kind of story, one that reflected on the past while forging a path for the future of a nation rich in art—and in resilience.
Joseph V. Melillo
Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
Performances: May 2, May 3 and May 4
Post-show Artist Talk: Members of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in conversation with Marina Harss
May 3 (free for same-day ticket holders)
For a thousand years, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia danced only for the gods. Resurrected spectacularly in the wake of the Khmer Rouge into a closely guarded yet flourishing modern form, the Royal Ballet comes to BAM with the breathtaking Legend of Apsara Mera, featured as a centerpiece of the citywide Season of Cambodia festival.
With movement constructed by Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a former prima ballerina in the Khmer tradition, Apsara Mera conjures the sanctified realm of two origin stories integral to Khmer culture: “Churning of the Sea of Milk” and “The Legend of Kambu and Mera.” Sumptuous movement, finely wrought costumes, and chanting evoke the comings and goings of celestial serpents and nymphs in this powerful offering from Southeast Asia, infused with divine ambrosia and modern expression alike.