The thing about brutally murdering one out of every four of your country’s citizens, concentrating on judges, artists, musicians, dancers, and the most educated and productive in the land, is that the gap created in collective memory is severed and so profound that it’s almost impossible to reconstruct. The few survivors of Pol Pot labored long and hard to rebuild their tragically lost culture, in some cases going so far as having to explain to the citizens why the dance was so important to Khmer Culture.
We saw a banner advertising a traditional dance program at the theater in the National Museum complex and booked seats after a day of touring the Killing Fields. We’d seen a lot of Indonesian and Malaysian dance this season, usually as a welcome ceremony for us cruisers so we were curious to see Cambodian dance. The good news was that the center was just a block from our hotel.
The performance was preceded by a beautiful and inspiring film on the national effort to regain their cultural roots. Aging artists, musicians and dancers who had survived the genocide were identified and brought together with young aspiring performers to rebuild the generational links and pass on the traditional arts.
From the first movement of the newly minted dancers I was struck by how strangely familiar some of the poses were and then it hit me. We’d just just spent four days staring in awe at bas-relief warriors and dancers carved into the ancient sandstone walls of Angkor Wat doing much the same thing.
Most of the pieces featured the noble Khmer peasants harvesting rice, or planting rice, or eating rice.
These are the same peasants Pol Pot browbeat into becoming the fearsome heartless murderers of the Khmer Rouge. Hard to understand but there it is. These are the people that brought us the Killing Fields but after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, other than a few leaders, there was very little revenge killing. Even Pol Pot was left to his own devises, dying of old age in a little town up in the mountains, kind of a “we’ll leave you alone if you leave us alone arrangement.”
Seeing the bright, enthusiastic faces of these young performers erased much of the horror we learned about earlier in the day and we joined them in celebrating the human spirit.