Rich traditions and a unique sense of aesthetics make Khmer culture special. When I present traditional dances, I try to make the work as impeccably true to the form as possible while also making new works that forge a unique kind of modernism from within this venerable lineage.

1. You were 8 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. How did dance help you to navigate the trauma and devastation inflicted during the regime?
By 1979, my family had lost all its men, its home (which burned to the ground while we were away) and our livelihood. I was riddled with lice and parasites. Within a year or so after entering the School of Fine Arts, I was traveling the world, reminding it that Khmer culture is known for more enduring legacies than auto-genocide. That’s quite a transformation.

2. You initially entered the School of Fine Arts theatre program but switched to dance. What initially attracted you to dance as an art form?
I wanted to study dance, but my uncle, the great performing artist and then minister of culture, Chheng Phon recommended that I study theatre as actors have longer careers than dancers. So I auditioned for the theatre school and began my studies there. But my teachers didn’t like my voice, so I transferred to the dance faculty.

3. You were part of the first generation of classically trained Cambodian dancers to graduate from the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. What was it like to learn from the masters of dance
There was an urgency then that you don’t feel at the dance school today for obvious reasons. For my teachers, if they didn’t quickly train a new generation, the whole tradition might die. And they believed that art is the soul of our culture. So they put everything they had into getting us ready. Normally we think it takes 10 years to properly train a classical dancer. My generation did it in a year or two.

4. How would you describe the elements and philosophy of traditional Cambodian dance?
Dance can serve many purposes. It can be religious or spiritual; it can be celebratory; it can be political. As a choreographer, I’ve used the dance to consider issues of social justice. Whatever the purpose, the dance, if choreographed and performed well, maintains it sense of groundedness, its curvilinear shapes, its deliberate pacing and an intensity that emerges from within the dancer rather than, say, from facial expressions.

5. You’ve performed and had your choreography performed around the world in notable venues. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?
That’s hard to say, but I think the moments when I’ve received profound responses from audience members are the most rewarding. For example, when I was a teenager, I was on tour with my fellow students in a part of the country that was suffering terribly from civil war. The morning after one performance, a noodle vendor in the market told us that a group of Khmer Rouge guerrillas had come to our performance armed with rocket launchers intending to kill us. But they liked the dancing so much, they waited until the end, clapped and returned to their base. After the 2000 premiere of my first choreographic work, Samritechak, which is adapted from Othello, two young men approached me to ask why the main character had committed suicide. I told them that he was punishing himself for murdering his wife in an unfounded jealous rage. “But,” they protested, “generals don’t kill themselves.” They had never before imagined a world in which leaders might take responsibility for their bad decisions. Just this year, survivors of forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge have told me that my dance drama Phka Sla has said what they’ve always wanted to say but didn’t know how to articulate it. That’s pretty rewarding.

6. How do you approach reworking classic stories for Khmer dance?
What is your process? Have you encountered any problems in doing so? All Cambodian classical dance dramas are adopted from classic literature. So it’s a natural marriage. However, adapting Western stories has presented problems on occasion. In 2005, I was asked by the director Peter Sellars to create a dance inspired by Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. When I first watched a video of it, I turned to my husband and aksed, “What in the world am I supposed to do with that?” The piece was completely opaque to me. But after reading books on the symbolism in the Magic Flute, the last year of Mozart’s life and a history of the Freemasons (and having Peter talk me through the musical language), I came to see the story as a parable about the dangers of extreme rhetoric. I saw Pamina, who isn’t so important in the original, as a victim of these extremes, which I could understand and relate to the Cambodian experience. The Queen of the Night gives a magic flute to Termino and a dagger to Pamina. I related this to the dual legacies of Khmer culture and the Khmer Rouge, gifts (both wanted and unwanted) all Cambodians of my generation carry with them.

7. Who or what serves as your inspiration in your dancing and choreography?
In classical dance, we are bearers of an ancient tradition. I am inspired by my teachers, my teachers’ teachers and all the ancestors that came before them. At the same time, I’m inspired by choreographers who redefined the boundaries of their traditional forms, including George Balanchine and Alonzo King. Once, in Lowell, Massachusetts, a professor at the university there called me “The Balanchine of Cambodian dance.” It may be too big of a statement, but I took it as a great complement.

8. Which is your greater love: dance or choreography?
I don’t know that I love one more than the other. As your body ages, performing becomes more challenging, but you can bring a maturity to the performance that young dancers often lack. Thankfully, you can choreograph as long as you remain inspired.

9. Are you interested in other forms of dance? If so, what?
While I was a university student in the U.S., I studied many dance forms, including ballet, Modern, jazz, flamenco, baratha natyam, Javanese, jerjer, Afro-Caribbean, African and even belly dance. I loved learning and performing them all. Studying another dance form gives you a greater sense of the possibilities for how the body can move through time and space. Understanding their history and essence expands your understanding of your own form.

10. Who have been some of your favourite people to work with? Is there anyone you would like to work with, but haven’t had the chance to yet?
My favourite collaborators are my teachers and my students. But I’ve had wonderful experiences collaborating with fellow choreographers, composers, visual artists and designers too. I’ve always thought it would be exciting to work with the director Julie Taymor. I introduced myself to her once in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House after watching her production of The Magic Flute, but I don’t think she has any idea who I am. I’m hoping to collaborate with the Cambodian Space Project in the near future. That should be fun.

11. You’ve been heavily involved in building the Cambodian arts and culture scene. What makes the Cambodian arts and culture unique in your opinion?
Rich traditions and a unique sense of aesthetics make Khmer culture special. When I present traditional dances, I try to make the work as impeccably true to the form as possible while also making new works that forge a unique kind of modernism from within this venerable lineage.

12. What advice would you give to an aspiring dancer?
Make the world you want to live in.

– Interview by Camha Pham for the KRWF Gazette