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Escaping War-Torn Cambodia, Choreographer Peou Khatna Brings An Ancient Art to the New World

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Fleeing a nation devastated by war, revolution and mass starvation, more than half a million Cambodian refugees sought refuge in Thailand in 1979. Among them was a petite, white-haired, 65-year-old woman who had traveled much farther than most of her countrymen. For the four previous decades, Peou Khatna helped lead the Royal Cambodian Ballet to triumph on stages from Washington to Paris to Moscow. Then for three horrific years she walked the length and breadth of her country, fearful that she would be killed by vengeful Khmer Rouge revolutionaries. Finally arriving in January 1980 at Khao I Dang, a refugee camp just inside the Thai border, Peou Khatna did once again what she had done all her life: She helped assemble a dance troupe. It included her daughter, Sin Ny, 27, and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Chum Chan Chaavy, and on a tiny wooden platform, in a sea of mud, she began coaxing an ancient art from the midst of a modern nightmare. “It was my duty to try to preserve the tradition,” says Peou.

Her dedication to the subtle steps and graceful hand gestures of the classic Khmer dance succeeded in rescuing a bit of culture 11 centuries old. Not long after that, Swiss ethnographer Jean-Daniel Bloesch saw Peou’s dancers perform at Khao I Dang and started a campaign to bring them to the West. Last February, with the aid of the U.S. State Department and the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the troupe of two dozen Cambodians and their families settled in the Washington suburb of Wheaton, Md. and began practicing in a local church. Last week the Khmer Classical Dancers made their official debut at the Smithsonian Institution, a performance that began a national tour that will take them to Boston, Philadelphia and the Knoxville, Tenn. World’s Fair.

An orphan at 7, Peou Khatna grew up on the grounds of the royal palace in Phnom Penh, raised by an aunt who was one of King Norodom’s wives. Peou began training for the Royal Ballet as a child, and eventually became a star. After she stopped performing at 30, she stayed with the company as a choreographer, teacher and costume designer. Once the nation won independence from France in 1953, the King’s heir, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, built the Royal Ballet into a showcase of Khmer culture, lavishing a fortune on gold-and-diamond-studded costumes. Soon Khatna’s daughter, Sin Ny, was dancing starring roles.

In March 1970 the idyll ended abruptly. Prince Sihanouk was overthrown, and many dancers followed him into exile in China. A month later U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. Then in 1975 the Communist Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh and brutal repression followed. The Communists regarded the Royal Ballet as part of a feudal heritage that had to be eradicated. “If it was known you were a palace dancer,” Khatna remembers, “you died.”

After burning photographs and burying jewels that might betray her past, Khatna and her family assumed the role of illiterate peasants. They worked in the rice fields up to 16 hours a day and lived on meager rations in an atmosphere of unrelenting terror. “For three years, there was nothing in my mind but fear,” says Sin Ny. “Sometimes at night I would dream of dancing again but I would wake up, afraid of even allowing myself to dream those things.”

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 drove Khatna and her clan to the camp in Thailand. “I was happy to teach students again,” she says. “It made me forget how horrible the past had been.”

When the family reached the U.S., daughter Ny recalls her relief: “Now I’m sure we’re not going to die.” Economic survival is another question. While scraping by with donated furniture and federal refugee benefits, Ny is training as a seamstress and her husband, Sam, is going to electronics school. Optimistically, they named their second child Dollar. But the matriarch insists that the family’s first priority must be the ballet company. “As long as the dance lives,” says Peou Khatna firmly, “Cambodia lives.”