Sunday, June 03, 2007

Cambodian dancer turns to Tennessee Williams

Charya Burt fuses Cambodian and Western dance influences. Photo by RJ Muna

Sunday, June 3, 2007
Rachel Howard
San Francisco Chronicle (Calif., USA)

Charya Burt fans her fingers like an exotic flower, lowers to her knees with her back leg bent skyward and bounces gently to the xylophone-like tones of a Cambodian roneat ek. It's a warm spring day in a Santa Rosa high school auditorium, but Burt is wearing traditional Cambodian attire: tight silk bodice, folded sarong pants -- and, far more unusual -- a microphone pack with a black wire snaking up her back.

Her throaty voice sounds natural as birdsong, but for a dancer to also sing is revolutionary in Cambodian classical dance. Even more extraordinary are the words that follow: "Isolated from tomorrow, surrounded by beautiful antiquities, surrounded by loneliness," she says, then takes tiny soft steps as her arms form exquisitely sculpted arcs.

This is Burt's new Cambodian dance take on Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," titled "Blue Roses" and depicting the fearful loneliness of a Cambodian princess instead of a fragile Southern belle. That may sound bold enough, but some of the real risk-taking is in the subtleties. In addition to musicians on the roneat ek and sompho drum, a violinist and cellist sit onstage, playing melodies created for Cambodian Pinpeat orchestra on Western instruments. "This was a way to merge the two cultures together, because I'm influenced by Western culture and Cambodian," Burt explains during a rehearsal break, her softly smiling face as serene as in performance. "I want to create living art, not a museum where you can't touch."

Burt is far from the only "traditional" dance artist acting on this sentiment. At this month's 29th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival -- during which Burt's "Blue Roses" will premiere on the second of three programs -- you can see just about every dance form imaginable: Chinese lion dances and Spanish flamenco, hip-shaking Tahitian spectacles and smoothly gliding Korean rituals. But much of what you will see this year will be brand new. Of the 29 Bay Area groups taking over the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre's stage, eight will present world premieres. Four of these are commissioned by the festival's producer, World Arts West, but the new works are also coming forward unprompted, in traditions as differing as Mexican folklorico and Indian odissi, West African and Filipino folk.

"Something's happening across the field," says Worlds Arts West Executive Director Julie Mushet. "So many of the performances this year are thrilling because you see a shift in perception, that these are not static forms. Anyone who sees Charya's piece will understand that Cambodian classical dance is still evolving."

It may sound like a mad rush toward the new, but though it appears paradoxical, the innovation is often born out of a desire to preserve. The Bay Area's most popular "ethnic dance" artists, like kumu hula Patrick Makuakane and Indian Kathak guru Chitresh Das, have proven during the past decade that bold changes -- when introduced by an artist who is deeply, seriously trained -- are often the way to carry tradition forward.

That's certainly the case with Burt, whose drive to preserve her art form is intense. Born in Phnom Penh, she was just 5 when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and began killing traditional artists. An estimated 80 percent of Cambodian classical dancers perished.

Burt's family was driven to an encampment near the Thai border, where Burt's father and a brother died of starvation. When the war was over, the family moved to a small town near the capital, where Burt would sneak into the community theater to watch classical dancing. Her uncle was a dancer, and a teacher at the theater soon showed her the daily finger-bending exercises needed to produce supple joints capable of emulating the sculptures of the Angkor Wat temple.

At 12, Burt left home to study at the Royal University of Fine Arts, living in a dorm and dancing every day from 7:30 a.m. until noon. "I thought, Cambodians have such a painful past, we have to look beyond to the beauty of the culture," she remembers.

She graduated and became a leading dancer chosen for international tours but, like the Cambodian princess in her version of "The Glass Menagerie," she sensed an outside world -- and unlike her main character, she found the courage to pursue it. She married an American teacher, and moved to Sonoma County in 1993.

Today she trains four serious students, and travels to teach every month in Long Beach, where her dancer sister runs a Cambodian dance school. But finding a fully appreciative audience for Cambodian classical dance is not easy. The thousand-year-old form counts more than 4,500 basic movements, including a panoply of hand gestures that can act out ancient epics but may look merely pretty to Western eyes.

"This means 'leaf'," Burt says, stretching her double-jointed fingers, palm flattened. She touches index to thumb. "This means 'flower bud.' To point up means 'tree.' Now a new tree begins to open again. It symbolizes the life cycle, rebirth."

The Ethnic Dance Festival is full of such encounters, fascinating glimpses of movement languages that take years to properly understand. But Burt is grateful for the appreciation of larger audiences, however incomplete, and she believes the ethnic dance field is turning a corner. Her festival commission was founded by a James Irvine Foundation grant, her second.

"Traditional artists are being more accepted into the American mainstream," she says. "It used to be, this grant is only for ballet or contemporary western, or check the box that says 'traditional.' Now you can be traditional and creative at the same time. It's a breakthrough."

Burt's "Blue Roses" will reach a large crowd -- the festival is close to sold-out -- but innovation does not come without risk. Burt's toughest viewers may be fellow Cambodians.

"I think she's very brave," says Alexis Alrich, who composed half of the "Blue Roses" music and transposed the other half to Western instruments. "She's very cosmopolitan. She's reaching out and wants to expand. I'm trying to buck her up in case people give her a hard time."


Anonymous said...

Many thanks to Neak Charya Burt who represents of the Srey Khmer-Beauty & its soul.

Anonymous said...

Bullshit, Ah Khmer-Gringo does not
represent any Khmer. Keep the
shit in the west, will ya? We don't
want to get fuck, here.

Anonymous said...

Global witness in Khmer:

showing the Hun Sen's family
corruption in Cambodia

Anonymous said...

It's unacceptable that one Cambodian insult a dancer who just perfomed the Khmer art to foreigners. By your nasty comment I can say you are an ignorant and non-educated person.

Anonymous said...

Don't pay attention to that [thing]@ 12:53 AM. That [thing] was born premature (4 and 1/2 months early). It's head was run over by that Tuk Tuk, and therefore, that [thing] has never making any sense.

Ah Mouy Ning Vear Joy SumPung Yuon too much! Ah lob!

Anonymous said...

10:19, did you read the note under
the picture? it said, "Western
dance influences". Need I say

Anonymous said...

Art is for everybody. it has no political party. We must respect Khmer artists who are preserving the Khmer culture.

Anonymous said...

It's normal that any culture has some influence on others. That enriches each other culture and promote human relationship. I thin you are not an Extremist or a "Fundamentalist".Be reasonable!

Anonymous said...

2:06pm are you wearing pans, or you are A monkey youn?

Anonymous said...

. . . he loves to wear pink pants and uses glove in the dark raincoats.

Anonymous said...

Hey dude, FYI, easterner soldiers
don't go to war in a straw skirts,
you know?

Anonymous said...

Can you use other ways to curse Hun Sen? No one like him but is scared of him and hs family trees and branches.