Sunday, June 03, 2007

Keeping tradition alive

Later this week, at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance festival, Cambodian classical dance master, Charya Cheam Burt, will premiere her latest innovative dance piece titled Blue Roses, exploring the life of a Khmer princess, and inspired by Tennessee Willaims' play, The Glass Menagerie. Charya Burt is renowned for her expertise in presenting dance performances both of a classical traditional nature whilst fusing western instrumentation with Cambodian melodies. Her older sister is Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who I featured here and between them, they are continually honouring and expanding their Khmer heritage across the United States. Charya Burt (pictured) was five when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and in 1982, at the age of 12, she left home to study at the Royal University of Fine Arts under the few surviving dance masters. As a member of the royal dance troupe, she performed in Cambodia, China and North Korea and in 1990 began teaching as a faculty member. Marrying an American teacher, she moved to California in 1993, establishing her own classical dance company and has since conducted dance workshops and taught in community and school programs, as well as performing extensively across the States. A San Francisco Chronicle article on Blue Roses is in comments. Visit Charya Burt's own website here.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Sunday, June 03, 2007
Cambodian dancer turns to Tennessee Williams...
Charya Burt fuses Cambodian and Western dance influences.

by 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."