Almost extinguished during the reign of Pol Pot, the traditional art of Cambodian classical dance is making a strong resurgence in recent years. The National Dance Company, based at the Bassac Theatre, has a company of 60 dancers and performs regularly for tour groups as well as special state or religious occasions. At the north end of Phnom Penh at the School of Fine Arts, 220 students are in training to become the next generation of classical dancers.
Every morning at the School of Fine Arts hundreds of girls and a few boys, grouped according to their level, are busy doing their exercises, repeating patterns and movements of different characters and dances. Their teachers move among the rows, watching every little movement of hand, body, foot with a hawk-like eye, moving quickly to correct a position, to turn a foot to a sharper angle, as the students practice their highly stylized movements.
There are approximately 220 students currently in training at the school, 198 of which are girls. Selected by auditions that are held once each year in Phnom Penh, dancers start their training at between eight and twelve years old. Paen Sok Huon, the head classical dance teacher, said it is immediately apparent during auditions if a girl has the talent to become a dancer. They train for nine years, after which they either go on to join the National Dance Company as professional dancers, or become teachers themselves.
Many students come to the school from the provinces and live with relatives in Phnom Penh while they train; those with no family can find accommodation at the school. When the school first re-opened back in 1982, there were 60 students, mostly orphans from the Pol Pot years, who all lived at the school while they trained. Each year approximately 60 new students arrive to start the long training process to become a classical or folk dancer.
Both the school and the dance company are supported by the state. Students do not pay to attend the school, and the professional dancers receive a government salary of $10 per month. But as the government faces severe financial difficulties, the school and company are chronically short of funds.
A recent benefit premier showing of the documentary film, "The Tenth Dancer," by Australian film maker Sally Ingleton, launched a special fund established by Telstra/OTC, the Australian telecommunications company, to promote the School of Fine Arts and the National Dance Company. The June 18 benefit raised $6,600, with generous donations from the Australian Mission and Telstra/OTC, which hosted the benefit. Telstra representative Mara Moustafine said that the proceeds from the fund will be divided equally between the National Dance Company and the School of Fine Arts. On June 28 Telstra presented a check for $3,500 to the National Dance company to repair and purchase new costumes and headdresses. The money had in fact already been allocated, as costumes need frequent repair and replacement given the rigors of regular performances.
The special fund is being administered by Telstra, and continues to gratefully accept donations. Those interested should contact Mara Moustafine at Telstra/OTC.