It is late morning in 1971, Times Square, New York. Eighteen Cambodian women, the youngest aged in her late teens and the oldest 36, are being photographed in classical Apsara dance position: one leg bent behind the other, hands flexed in a disciplined freeze. The women wear their hair loose around their shoulders or in the style of the time, a bombei bob. Some are in sleeveless white tops and all but one wears a dark sampot and heeled dance shoes.
Standing in the sidelines that day was Proeung Chhieng, one of the few male dancers in the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. The dance troupe had recently been re-named simply ‘Khmer classical dance’ under direction from the Lon Nol Khmer Republic. The dancers were touring the United States for the first time and the newspaper photographer – whose name no one remembers – snapped a souvenir of the seminal tour for posterity.
Fast forward to 2013 and Royal Ballet director Proeung Chhieng and a new generation of dancers are assembled in the iconic plaza for Season of Cambodia, the large-scale arts and music festival that ends this month in New York.
Photographer Pete Pin holds a newspaper clipping of the photo in front of him, trying to recreate the shot and using the giant Coca-Cola billboard and Father Duffy statue as reference points. The resulting ‘then and now’ photos, posted on the festival’s website and Facebook, were seen by 87,000 people worldwide within two weeks.
“It’s a statement about how culture has the power to revive,” says Season of Cambodia executive director Prim Phloeun. “I think Cambodians around the world felt really proud (of the images)”
Only four or so Royal Ballet dancers from the original photo are still alive, the other women were murdered by the Khmer Rouge or passed away in the immediate years. For Chhieng, the photo was a chance to remember them and to honour the endurance of their art form, which came so close to being destroyed.
“I’m very happy that this time we remember our friends who passed away and commemorate them and their dance, and the Royal Ballet. It was a good souvenir. I was surprised when I saw that photo…it was very meaningful.”
Dressed in a vermilion silk sampot chom kben and white blouse, ballet dancer Sang Phorsda says the older, lost generation of dancers hold a lasting interest for her. Barefoot and smiling in the photograph, Phorsda and her fellow dancers were performing in the Ballet’s Apsera Mera show and were on a high.
“At first I felt so proud that I am [part of] a new generation for the Royal Ballet. There were many people looking around the shoot at the time.
“I’ve been a dancer for 14 years, now I’m 24. I can say that I’ve spend half my life with the Royal Ballet. They loved what I’m doing and that I can perform with this important event.
Like other Diaspora artists in Season of Cambodia, photographer Pin, who was born in a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and migrated to America in the mid-1980s, was more familiar with contemporary arts than Cambodia’s traditional forms.
“I am a Cambodian American who is engaging with very complex questions of my own personal identity and relationship to Cambodia through documentary photography, “ he says. “I have been photographing the Festival as the festival photographer and have been learning about and engaging with Cambodian arts and artists through this process, filtered via my camera.”
Pin worked out that the 1971 photograph was most likely shot on a 4x5 press camera and intended to shoot the picture on a camera “with similar framelines loaded with modern film.” However the Square had since had benches and flowers built, and Pin was forced to use a digital camera with a wide-angle lens.
In the end, the differences in the quality of the images don’t matter. Placed side-by-side, they represent a story that is bigger than their parts.
“I am based in New York and have worked near and around Times Square for years. My relationship to it is very different, as a ‘New Yorker,’ to many of the other artists because of this,” he says. “However, I understood how incredibly poignant the 1971 image was - and that our efforts to recreate the photograph, or in my words pay homage to it, is a testament to the vitality of Cambodian arts across generations.”