When I first came to the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh a year ago, it was finals week -- the whole campus was heaving with the sound of last-minute practicing. Scales rippled and crashed to a halt, a flute student huffed through a troublesome measure over and over, and a young man in the garb of a royal bodyguard was up a tree, hacking off branches for his stage set. Even though I've returned during normal school session, the practice rooms are still full -- a violinist working through a Beethoven romance, and students rehearsing for a performance to commemorate the twenty-sixth anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Despite its university moniker, the school offers training in Cambodian traditional dance, music and theater, and Western drama and classical music for students as young as six all the way to the undergraduate level, which explains both the wee boy practicing his monkey-dance role and the young woman walking around with an expert application of costume makeup.
After the finals performances year ago the campus grew quiet and deserted, dripping with rain. I sat down to talk with the dean of the school, Proeung Chhieng, about his career and his work at the university. A year later, I find that little has changed. Chhieng is still marvelously expressive -- each translated bit of conversation merely fills out what he's managed to convey in the tilt of his face, the movement of his hands. Proeung Chhieng, after all, was a dancer for many years -- one of the most promising in Cambodia, before the Pol Pot era.
Great-grandson of a legendary dance teacher, Chhieng used to attend dance rehearsals and imitate the boys practicing the monkey role -- the sole male part in classical Cambodian dance. “I loved the acrobatics of it,” he says. Chosen to train as a Royal Ballet dancer, Chhieng became the youngest Cambodian artist to perform abroad in 1958 when he began touring with the national company in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yugoslavia at the age of nine.
Chhieng went on to study lighting, design and choreography in China and Korea as a young adult. But his career trajectory took a near-fatal turn in 1978, when Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot asked young Cambodians studying abroad to return to “rebuild” their country. For most, this was a death sentence – seen as corrupt foreign elements, many of the unwitting, idealistic young people were taken straight from the Phnom Penh airport to detention centers and execution grounds. Chhieng managed to escape this fate by disguising his career as a Royal Ballet dancer. Six months later, the Vietnamese government, enraged at violent Cambodian border incursions on their territory, staged an invasion that ended Khmer Rouge rule.
The Khmer Rouge had closed down the Royal University of Fine Arts, murdered countless artists and let even more starve to death or die of disease. Despite the harrowing setbacks, the university was re-opened soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Why so soon? “Art is like the soul of a country,” he says, and explains that the school welcomed in hundreds of students, many of them the orphaned children of artist parents.
Chhieng stops suddenly. He's looking at the rain that's tapping into a bucket in a practice hall behind us. “The buildings are so broken,” he says quietly, pointing at the worn-down steps, scarred walls and broken concrete. I find myself thinking about a theatre final-exam performance I saw, about the looting that plagues the national symbol of Cambodia, the temples of Angkor. One character cries out about his dying mother -- how can he care about a heap of rock when he cannot care for his own flesh and blood?
The professors delivered their critique at the end of the performance. “You know, you did well -- what I could hear, anyway,” said one. “The microphones in here are so bad. So I'm going to give the school money out of my own pocket for that,” the professor proclaimed, to wild cheers from the audience.
Outside the school, the problems just mount -- jobs are scarce for the university graduates. The last time Chhieng led a delegation of dancers to the United States, six ran away and defected. Chhieng's task seems Herculean -- this work of training artists, building demand for and pride in a culture that was nearly crushed by the past, faces untold challenges from the future.
But outside his mention of the dilapidated buildings, hints of sadness breaks through Chhieng's optimism only rarely. “Perhaps I am nearing the end of my time,” says Chhieng, who is only 56. “It is very difficult for me to talk about the end of my life, because perhaps I won't see the fruition of this work.” He pauses, staring out at the rippling puddles. “But the students are my hope. My own teachers died, but not their souls. They taught me things I have passed on to my own students. It is like being a farmer. When you see your harvest -- it's so fruitful, you feel your own life is longer. There's a Cambodian saying: ‘I don't have money, but I have rice.'”
Chhieng offers to drive me home, as there seems to be no end to the rain. “It's like the influence of foreign culture,” he says, with a laugh. “We can't make it stop. But -- although it can destroy the plants,” he says, extending the harvest metaphor, “it can also help the fruit grow.” I marvel out loud at his optimism . . . does he ever feel discouraged? And the fleeting sadness breaks through again. “I sacrificed my whole life for my art, my culture,” he says unexpectedly in response, his face dark and streaked with the shadows of the rain. I pause before asking -- “Was it worth it?” He nods without a word, but the sadness has drawn deeper into his face. We drive the rest of the way back in silence.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent. She first traveled to Cambodia on a Pew International Journalism Fellowship.