The Dancing Fields 


The horrors of Cambodia's Pol Pot regime are well documented. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot's leadership murdered some two million Cambodians in an effort to "purify" the country by ridding it of its urban, educated class. The killing fields also robbed Cambodia of its national culture. Music, fine art, and dance -- seen by the cadres as corrupt and bourgeois -- were systematically erased from the landscape.

But somehow a few artists survived, among them Proeung Chhieng, a principal dancer in the Royal Cambodian Ballet. He happened to be in North Korea when Pol Pot took over, then later returned home, assumed a false identity, and eventually became dean of choreographic arts at Phnom Penh's reconstituted Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), trying to revive Khmer dance with the help of scant surviving teachers. Chhieng's mission has evidently been successful, though traditional arts now face a new threat in the form of worldwide pop culture.

"Really, culture has no borders," Chhieng says. "We have some problems. Our country is still poor; we've had wars. Over ninety percent of our dancers were killed. Now our most important task is to educate our own people -- a moral education. Because of that, we must be careful not to import too much outside popular culture."

This summer, Chhieng leads his 41-member RUFA troupe on a 12-city US tour -- the first such visit since 1990 -- with stops on Saturday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (3 p.m.) at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia," presented by Cal Performances, showcases both folk and court dance forms as well as classical music, and as a special treat the ensemble performs the Reamker, a graceful Cambodian version of the Ramayana, combining movement, theater, and shadow puppetry.

Tickets are $20, $26, and $32 from the Zellerbach ticket office, 510-642-9988. As an extra attraction, on Thursday, September 6 at 7 p.m., master teacher Neaq Kru Tha performs with Ni Ketut Arini Alit from the Bay Area's Gamelan Sekar Jaya in "Passing Along the Tradition -- Bali/Cambodia," a cross-cultural dance demonstration at UCB's Wheeler Auditorium that is free and open to the public.


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