For a thousand years, Kampuchean (Cambodian) dancers in dazzling costumes have portrayed the epic events of the Ramayana in ballets said to be the most favored diversions of Khmer kings from Jayavarman to Sihanouk.
But rarely has the Reamker dance (taken from the Ramayana story) had as much symbolic significance as it did when it was performed in New York recently by the Khmer Classical Dancers. They succeeded in enchanting an overflow crowd of 4 ,000 people at the American Museum of Natural History - the first stop in a continuing national tour.
The Reamker story is one in which the mythic heroes are forced to live in exile from their homeland for long years on end, enduring attacks and tricks at the hands of a 10-headed demon king who appears in a variety of incarnations. An enormous on-stage battle pits an army of monkeys against an army of giants in a penultimate struggle between good and evil. As the reneat (xylophone) and sampho (drum) hit their crescendo, the demon army is defeated, tyranny is ended, and the heroes are happily reunited and able to return to their kingdom.
In real life, the members of the Khmer Classical Dancers have endured hardships that rival even the most painful sufferings recounted on the stage. And in the opinion of many of them, their recent resettlement in America is the equivalent of the happy ending of the Reamker dance.
''This dance is very much like our story,'' says Say Sara, a 26-year-old former law student who played a catalytic role in bringing the dance troupe together in Thailand's Khao-I-Dang refugee camp. ''We too are in exile, forced to live far from our home.''
The group has at its core 17 former members of the famed Royal Cambodian Ballet which toured Europe and North America in the 1960s to wide critical acclaim. Prince Samdech Norodom Sihanouk, then Kampuchea's head of state, thought of the royal ballet as a ''living Angkor Wat.'' He wanted to preserve the costumes, masks, choreography, delicate gestures, and rich legends of Khmer dance that expressed the artistic essence of the ancient Khmer Empire in a way even more vital than the spectacular facades of the temple complex at Angkor.
With Sihanouk's overthrow in 1970 and the ensuing war in Cambodia, the troupe lost its respected place in Khmer society and much of its financial backing. It became caught up in the political divisions that racked the country internally, and managed to stay intact only with great difficulty.
With the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge revolution in 1975, life in Cambodia, especially for artists and intellectuals, assumed a frightening new dimension as zealous cadres sought to obliterate everything associated with the country's feudal past. The luckier members of the ballet were sent to agricultural cooperatives to grow rice. The less fortunate, singled out as symbols of the ''decadent past,'' were victims of torture and sometimes death. ''The soul of Cambodia grew dark and cold,'' says one of the dancers. ''Our tradition disappeared almost completely.''
Yet the dancers were all good actors and performers, and many were able to pretend to be illiterate peasants or find other devices to escape the enforcers of the revolution's code of behavior. They survived hunger and violent purges; arduous labor and malaria epidemics. ''Our culture was our inspiration,'' notes Say Sara, himself a singer. ''It kept our morale high even when we couldn't practice it.''
In 1979, the invading Vietnamese army swept across Cambodia and created a new crisis even for those who had survived the rigors of the revolution. Fighting and famine engulfed the land, and the former troupe - whose members were already dispersed and weakened - were decimated still further.
The invasion also brought with it the chance for escape, and among the hundreds of thousands of sick and starved Cambodians who poured into Khao-I-Dang in 1979-80, there were dozens of members of the royal ballet.
As soon as they were healthy enough to walk, dancers began dancing again. Musicians shed tears of joy at the chance to make musical instruments again. In the midst of the camp's squalor, a Khmer renaissance began on a small scale.
''We had no costumes, but the people were happy to see things they thought they would never see again,'' says Sara. As a unit leader in Khao-I-Dang, Sara began actively trying to rebuild a troupe from among former members and promising new students.
U Vanna, a woman who now acts as president of the company, worked in the Khao-I-Dang hospital after fleeing from the invading Vietnamese Army. Acting as a translator for foreign doctors in the camp, she was able to meet most new arrivals. She always asked if any of them were dancers, maskmakers, musicians, or choreographers, and if they were, she steered them toward the emerging ''refugee ballet company.''
A number of visiting foreigners, including Swiss filmmaker Jean-Danier Bloesch, witnessed impromptu performances by the dancers in the camp, and recognized that there was far more talent present than the average camp amateur entertainment. He and others sought sponsorship of the group in a number of countries and, in October 1980, the United States State Department agreed to allow some 90 performers and their dependents to immigrate en masse and settle in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Since that time, the troupe has been engaged in almost nonstop rehearsal, trying to make up for lost years of work. ''In principle, it should take 10 years of training before a dancer can really perform,'' U Vanna notes somewhat nervously. ''But we are so short-handed, we have to allow those who only have one year of training to perform.''
Indeed the preparation is arduous -- it takes three hours just for dancers to be sewn into their costumes -- and it takes a minimum of eight hours a day of training and exercise to be up to standard. Some members have been unable to maintain the schedule while also trying to learn English and find income-producing jobs so that they don't have to stay on public assistance. But making up for those who have dropped out of the groups, others have heard about it and joined.
Key to the success of the Khmer Classical Dancers has been the Washington-based National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), which has worked to raise funds for costumes, masks, instruments, and other basic necessities of the once-royal dance company. William Kornrich, associate director of the NCTA, says that working with the dancers has been a ''deeply rewarding'' experience.
''What we're watching is the efforts to save a 1,200-year-old art form. These people are its only hope for survival.''
At the same time, Kornrich is not idealistic about the problems involved. ''It isn't easy to maintain the artistic integrity of something as ancient and precious as Khmer dance, and still integrate into American society,'' he says. Khmer Classical Dancers, it seems, like designer jeans and American rock music, too.
The result, says Kornrich, is that the NCTA is called on to perform tasks as exotic as helping to buy and ship 11 crates of masks from Thailand and as mundane as cosigning loans for ballet members.
Although the operation lacks funds and facilities, and badly needs more veterans, since everything is passed down from memory, Say Sara is insistent that the troupe must overcome the obstacles. ''There is very little Khmer culture now in Cambodia,'' he says in a voice that betrays the deep personal pain he has known. ''It is up to us to show the world the beauty of our culture. We may not be able to perform with gold and diamonds like we used to, but the dances are still the same.''
A special focus of the tour that is scheduled for February and March in Northeast American cities including Boston, Providence, and Philadelphia, will be in the Indochinese communities themselves. In Philadelphia, for example, a special performance is being arranged just for Indochinese students.
''America is made up of many nations,'' Sara points out. ''We don't want our Cambodian people to forget their own customs and culture. We want to let other Americans know we are Cambodian and what we can contribute.''
When the dancers closed their New York performance with the radiant candle dance in which the pulsating motions of the dancers are punctuated by arcs of flame from candles they hold in either hand, there was no doubt in the audience as to the unique quality of Khmer culture. To be sure, the troupe lacks the artistic cohesion that characterized it when it toured the US a decade ago. But that is only natural, considering what has happened in the interim.
And on seeing the candle-dance finale, the audience could immediately sense that Cambodia's millenium-old artistic tradition was as fragile as the flickering flames borne by the dancers. Yet somehow they were managing to keep the candles burning.