Neak Kru Charya Burt survived the Khmer Rouge era despite the destruction of almost everything around her. When she began attending the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1982, the master dance teachers who were training her were the few who survived by hiding their identities from the Khmer Rouge, and they passed their cultural knowledge on to her.
During that time there was a great deal of effort to try to call back all the surviving artists and master dance teachers from all over the country to Phnom Penh to try to rebuild the arts and culture that were nearly lost.
Another strong influence was her uncle, Chheng Phon, a Cambodian arts scholar and Minister of Culture in the early 1980’s who did some of the earliest work of bringing about Cambodia’s cultural rebirth. Even now in the US, Charya’s passion for cultural renewal has motivated her to plant the seeds for the next generation of traditional Khmer dancers.
“I witnessed all the hard work and commitment by my uncle, Chheng Phon, and a handful of other master teachers and artists. I realised how important it was to be a part of this Cambodian cultural rebirth. It was a time of awakening from the dark nightmare and it was a time to unify the collective effort to try to teach again to train a new generation of dancers and teachers and to perform again.
“I have never forgotten Chheng Phon saying, ‘Culture is the spirit of the nation.’ This spirit was implanted in me then and now I feel obligated to instil this spirit in young Cambodian-Americans here in the United States. I realised then that this was my life calling. No matter where I am I must continue the mission,” she tells The Post.
Charya began to study dance at the School of Fine Arts in 1982 shortly after it was established. In 1989, she graduated and became a faculty member and taught at the school, which by that time had become the Royal University of Fine Arts.
In addition to her teaching, she often performed for foreign delegations and for government and cultural events. She also toured the countryside performing for poor villagers to help educate them about their culture.
In 1992 she toured with the Royal Dance Troupe in North Korea and China. In 1993 she immigrated to the United States. The journey wasn’t easy because she did not have her family nearby and her English was limited.
“I thought that the only way for me to move forward with my art and be able to adjust to this new world was by getting a formal western education. I spent a couple of years taking English classes then I continued on to earn an AA degree from Santa Rosa Junior College and then transferred to Sonoma State University where I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree,” she says.
While going to school she was able to continue her work in the dance form through teaching and performing.
For the first 10 years after being in the US her main focus was on teaching in different Cambodian communities. She taught dance for an after school programme at an elementary school in Santa Rosa. Her first residency was with the organisation APSARA in Stockton. She also has worked with Cambodian communities throughout California and she has done several residencies with Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach.
She also has had multiple residencies with San Jose’s Cambodian Cultural
Dance Group and conducted workshops for The Khmer Ballet of Stockton, Khmer Youth of Modesto, Wat Khmer Modesto Dance Group, Modorodok Khmer Performing Arts of Stockton and the United Khmer Cultural Preservation organisation in Fresno.
Over the past 25 years she has trained hundreds of Khmer dancers including five formally trained apprentices with the support of the Alliance for California Traditional Art’s Apprenticeship programme.
“My work with the Khmer diaspora communities has always been part of my mission because I believe that dance is an essential tool for the inspiration and empowerment of a new generation of Cambodians.
“I use dance training as a way to cultivate cultural identity and a way to provide a foundation for young Cambodian-Americans to connect to their cultural heritage. Most importantly I use dance as way to both celebrate our rich culture and to help heal us from the persistent effects of genocide,” Charya says.
Her most recent production was scheduled to take place last month at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is called Kingdom of the Divine and she had gathered Cambodian musicians and dancers from different communities around the country to perform together to celebrate Khmer arts and culture in support of the museum’s Krishna exhibition. Unfortunately, it was postponed due to the Omicron surge the US had in January.
From direct teaching to digital platforms
Before the pandemic she performed in a range of venues including the Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the San Francisco Opera House as part of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.
She travels a lot around the state to conduct dance workshops. However, the pandemic has made reaching out to dance students much more difficult and it has been very challenging for community leaders to keep dance students interested while learning remotely.
“That is why currently my energies have been directed at making digital dance resources available. Rob and I decided to develop the Charya Burt Cambodian Dance Digital Library. I received a Living Cultures Grant from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts last year to begin creating this and I will have a full-time archivist intern provided by Dance/USA this summer to help further develop the archives,”she says.
These digital dance resources will be made available to the world for free. They will include authentic dance resources including dance techniques, costuming instruction and dances from the classical repertory as well clips of her original works.
Plans, projects and grants
Over the next two years with a Creative Work Fund Grant she will be developing a new collaborative dance piece Beautiful Dark that explores the social and psychological impact of ‘colourism’ on immigrant communities in partnership with Mosaic America based in the San Francisco South Bay. Colourism is similar to racism but focuses on the relative shade of a person’s skin tone even within and between members of the same race or ethnicity.
In 2021 she received a Hewlett 50 Commission to create “The Rebirth of Apsara: Artistic Lineage, Cultural Resilience and the Resurrection of Cambodian Arts from the Ashes of Genocide.”
“This full-length dance or theatrical work investigates the relationship between art and war exploring how Cambodian arts have embodied the essence of Cambodian culture from ancient mythology to its post genocide resurrection,” Charya says.
To explore the impact artistic lineage has had on the rebirth of Cambodian classical dance she will travel to Cambodia to work with Soth Sam On’s daughter Soth Somali and her granddaughter Vuth Chanmoly along with Em Theay’s granddaughter Nam Narim.
The music for this work will be composed by one of the most distinguished Khmer composers in the world, Louk Kru Chinary Ung. His talented daughter and theatre artist Kalean Ung along with his wife Susan, a violist, will be a part of a group of artists that will also include noted Vietnamese composer and instrumentalist Van Anh Vo and Bay Area music icon Paul Dresher.
The performers will include professional dancers from Cambodia as well as dancers from the Cambodian diaspora from California and Massachusetts. The world premiere performance will be on Victory Over Genocide Day – January 7, 2024 – at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco and will be live-streamed world-wide.
“After the world premiere of the Rebirth of Apsara here in San Francisco in 2024, I hope to have the opportunity and support to bring this production to Cambodia so I can share my work with Cambodian audiences,” she says.
Vision for the future
In addition to preservation Charya says it is important to allow for both preservation and innovation. It is essential that Cambodian traditional dance be a living art though the past has laid such an important foundation for shaping the future.
In addition to making sure those traditional foundations are preserved and passed down to future generations, she creates original art rooted in tradition so that new art can coexist with the old.
There is not much commercial demand for classical Cambodian dance in America. Most Khmer professional classical dancers and teachers who have worked in the community are doing the work because they are passionate about preserving Cambodia’s past cultural traditions.
These performers have to have other jobs to remain financially stable. Charya is no exception – she struggled for many years to find financial support for her teaching, performing and creating new works.
Today she mostly relies on grants from arts foundations and has received a number of grants to create new works but those grants have not come often enough until very recently. And because she doesn’t live in an area with a large Cambodian population, she’s always had to rely on communities she’s worked with in the past to find dancers to perform in her company Charya Burt Cambodian Dance.
“Most often those dancers come from Long Beach, about 750 kilometers from where I live. I feel very fortunate that my work with Cambodian communities has recently been recognised. First with a fellowship in 2019 from Dance/USA and now a Johnson Fellowship I received this year from Americans for the Arts. I am so grateful for the financial support that allows me to keep teaching, preserving, creating and being an artist,” she says.
For more information on Neak Kru Charya Burt visit: www.facebook.com/charya.burt