Of Monkeys & Mermaids: The Cambodian Cultural Dance Troupe of San Jose
"Without knowing the past, the present cannot be as deep and rich an experience. For the Cambodian community that is awakening from the trauma of a culture that was almost destroyed, the Living Cultures Grant and ACTA gave the Cambodian community an opportunity to form a living culture of Cambodians here in America."
Such reads a passage in a letter to ACTA from the Cambodian Cultural Dance Troupe of San Jose, a program of the Cambodian American Resource Agency.
On September 2, 2012, their Living Cultures Grant culminated in a full theater production called Echoes of the Royal Court before 500 members of the South Bay community. It was the first time that live music accompaniment was provided by the Ho Chan Ensemble, a classical Cambodian pin peat orchestra. Master musician Ho Chan resides in Long Beach, home to California’s largest Cambodian population. Having the opportunity to train with live music was accomplished by a series of exchanges that took place during the year.
The San Jose dancers, under the artistic leadership of Mrs. Savary Dean, travelled to Long Beach to train intensively with the musicians. In turn, the musical ensemble came to San Jose before the performance to further train the young troupe. Mrs. Dean was trained as a dancer in the royal court before fleeing Cambodia on foot to save her life when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. Under the Communist rule, all symbols of the past hierarchy were threatened by death and starvation. The dance and music artists of this classical genre, whose roots have a historical precedent dating back to 7th Century, were targeted. It is estimated that close to 90% of Cambodia’s classical artists perished.
Fueled by a desire to keep alive the memory of those artists who died in the genocide, Mrs. Dean has taught classes free of charge to the next generation of American-born Cambodian youth for years. A portrait of Ms. Dean was recently recorded on a local news channel, where she was distinguished in a broadcast called Profiles of Excellence.
The San Jose youth also received classical dance training by master artist Charya Burt, whose singular presence in several California communities has been crucial to keeping the Khmer dance arts alive for the next generation. She has travelled to the San Jose community twice a month to teach the young women and men. Ms. Burt also performed in the concert.
There were many precedents set with this concert. The San Jose Khmer community mounted a major production for the first time outside of their yearly New Year festivities, with great success. Members of the community were able to access tickets and take full pride in the accomplishments of their youth whose repertoire included dances of blessings, tales of monkeys and mermaids from the epic book of tales, The Ramayana, as well as hear the live music of the pin peat, which many of the older generation had not heard since leaving Cambodia. Youth and audience alike were treated to the highest caliber of master artists embodied in their teachers, Savary Dean, Charya Burt, and Ho Chan. Transmission of cultural arts is a magical thing. Here in San Jose, the vision, commitment, and deep beauty of the form could bear fruit.