Musicians of the National Dance Company of Cambodia

During their dreadful mission to change Cambodia back into a peasant society the Khmer Rouge almost wiped out a thousand years of their country's tradition. To Pol Pot and his brutal regime the classical dance drama of Cambodia was no more than an expression of elitism - symbolic of religion and royalty - and therefore it had to be destroyed.

Former musicians and dancers, along with other hated city people, were sent to the remote country areas of Cambodia. They were separated from their families and forced to work in fields, digging drains and irrigation canals, often with their bare hands. Many of these canals never even worked, as the Pol Pot regime were not only going to invent a new society, they were going to get water to run up-hill as well.

Ninety percent of all artists and performers were killed during those dark years; only by hiding their identity did any survive at all. In the impoverished condition left by the war there was little to eat, but they were just hungry for their theatre. So much so that some of them walked the hundreds of miles back to Phnom Penh to perform again. When they reached the capital they found devastation – there were no instruments left, no costumes, no props, no school, no books. Yet from almost nothing they have resurrected and breathed new life into their ancient culture.

Since its reformation in 1980, the Arts Department of the Ministry of Culture has developed a 300-strong professional dance and theatre company which has toured all over Cambodia and beyond. Their ranks are now refreshed by graduates from the re-instituted Fine Arts School, continuing the relationship between Guru and pupil without which the craft might easily be forgotten. It takes twelve years to become a dancer or musician – six years to learn the technique, and another six to gain the spiritual feeling needed to perform. The Guru is acknowledge as the owner, inventor, and master of the craft, and is remembered before each performance in an act of homage called Homrong.

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