Innovative Artist and Traditional Teacher: the Passions of Cambodian Choreographer Charya Burt

By Rob Taylor

November 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Three dancers kneeling on the grass with their arms extended and have metal headdresses

Photo by Craig Stewart

When I spoke with Santa Rosa-based dancer and choreographer Charya Burt, she had recently returned from the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in western Massachusetts, where her company (Charya Burt Cambodian Dance) performed in the Festival’s Inside/Out series. We began by talking about her experience in what she describes as “the most iconic outdoor stage” at what she laughingly called “the Pillow.”

Charya’s company performed work from within the Cambodian classical repertory, as well as the original and innovative work she has developed over the past several years, and she tells me that “it was an incredible honor to have my work presented there. It’s a space that I [had previously only] seen in pictures and videos of other dance company’s performances, so it was an honor to perform in such a beautiful and serene space.”

Experiencing Charya Burt’s vision of Cambodian Dance in a serene space is appropriate, because watching Charya and her company perform, I’ve found myself entering a headspace of attentive serenity. Her high-precision choreography, comprised of subtle movements and nuanced gestures, is as complex and intricate as the ornate hand-made costumes featured in Cambodian dance, which take up to three hours for dancers to be sewed into. Watching her work, you are witness to a demonstration of gentle power whose profound depths are only capable of being understood through the grace of dancer’s arm as it moves through space. Finding that serene feeling is how I want to experience dance, and it’s a feeling I’ve experienced watching Charya and her company.

Burt immigrated to the United States in 1993, after a decade of dancing with Cambodia’s Royal Dance Company, and several years spent teaching classical dance at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Living in Santa Rosa, she has forged a career that, as she puts it, “highlights the two passions that I want to share – the importance of the cultural preservation of Cambodian dance, while at the same time showing how innovation, which has been in most of my work, can take classical movements and gestures and inject new life into them.”

There’s much to unpack in the pieces I’ve seen Charya and her company perform over the past decade. She has always created memorable contributions for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, where she has performed 12 times, most recently in 2016, but she has also successfully performed in less obvious spaces for traditional dance, like CounterPulse.

Silenced, the piece she performed at CounterPulse, was about the life of Cambodian pop icon Ros Serey Sothea and wove 1960’s Cambodian pop music into its fabric. Sothea disappeared during the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, a period whose violence also resulted in the death of Charya’s father and numerous family members. In Blossoming Antiquities, she explored the 1906 visit of the Cambodian Royal Ballet to France and the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s obsession with them, and incorporated western music and live visual arts into this work. There is also Blue Roses, which took the character of Laura from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and reconfigured it as the story of a Cambodian princess.

At her Rotunda Dance Series performance on November 3rd, Charya and her company will share one of the pieces she took to Jacob’s Pillow: Heavenly Garden, a piece originally staged for the proscenium stage of the Ethnic Dance Festival, re-staged for the outdoor performance at Jacob’s Pillow, and is now being re-conceived a third time to take advantage of what San Francisco City Hall Rotunda’s grand hall offers. Charya expresses great excitement to me about the challenge: “I imagine we’ll begin in the middle of the staircase, floating up and down in formation, eventually coming to the landing, which although it is small, can still fit the choreography that includes re-formed exits and entrances within the space of the piece.”

Charya tells me that Heavenly Garden’s modern take on classical choreography will be preceded by a traditional piece that “begins with me singing a prayer to bless the audience, where a dancer tosses flowers to the audience for peace and prosperity.” This mix of the traditional and the modern encapsulates Charya’s artistic goals. She explains that “adding singing into the performance and adding narrative are the two most prominent ways I add innovation,” to performances and Heavenly Garden includes both components.

Her performance at the Rotunda Dance Series is just one part of a very busy autumn for Charya and her company. In November, she will be at the Palace of Fine Arts auditioning a re-staging of a longer piece for the 2018 Ethnic Dance Festival. She tells me that the biggest challenge for these auditions is always “re-shaping a longer piece into a 10 minute performance.” Also in November, she will debut a new work choreographed to Cinnabar Heart, a composition for marimba by acclaimed Cambodian composer Chinery Ung, as a part of his 75th birthday celebration orchestrated by UC San Diego.

With support from the UC Berkeley Critical Refugee Studies collective, she will also begin research for what she hopes will become a new documentary dance project. Tentatively named Children of the Refugees, Charya says that in this early stage of the project: “I will interview my dancers [who are children of Cambodian refugees] to dig into their family history and specifically focus on the way a refugee’s understanding of space and time and how that impacts their children.” Charya tells me she “hopes to take the research gathered over the course of a year and use it to develop dance choreography by using those stories.” While this nascent work seems sure to produce an innovative new dance performance, her hope is to reconnect with former students and apprentices through the process.

Charya’s other stated passion of cultural preservation finds an outlet through working with dancers in the Cambodian community. In addition to her teaching in the Bay Area, she frequently travels to Long Beach (home to California’s largest Cambodian community) to teach at the Khmer Arts Academy, founded and run by her sister Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. Charya will begin a new artist residency at the academy in 2018.

She credits the Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ traditional apprenticeship program for helping her expand her opportunity for cultural preservation. Charya states that “teaching classes and groups of students is important, but apprenticeships provide a one-to-one intensive training. You work with one student for six months and train them with the skills and techniques they need to become professional dancers. It’s different with a class. That level of detail,” which is necessary to ensure the apprentice is immersed in the form to a degree that ensures cultural preservation, “cannot be conveyed at a group level.”

Charya has had “four apprentices from the Cambodian community, who are all working as professional dancers now.” She continues: “I’ve also apprenticed Tara Catherine Pendaya who comes from a different background [dances of Central Asia], but was able to work together through a CHIME[1] apprenticeship in a meaningful way.” As someone who wants to help sustain Cambodian dance and culture in the U.S. Charya says she “feels fortunate to have had the experience working with committed artists who love what they do, and who want to keep the dance alive and keep it moving forward.”

Charya is excited that “in the United States, wherever you find a Cambodian community you find dance happening. Because dance is a bridge for Cambodians to connect to their heritage, connect to their culture, and especially for younger Cambodians to be proud of who they are and be proud of their heritage.”

She often finds that Cambodian dance groups in a community are formed by a group of young people “who have learned from watching Cambodian dance on YouTube and then they start teaching each other, and they dance at all kinds of different levels,” but what makes Charya hopeful is that she finds “that dance becomes important to these communities,” and that is happening at all is a starting point for keeping Cambodian dance alive.

Her ultimate dream is to have a touring workshop that assists these myriad dance groups throughout the country with the “professional training that they need. I think it’s so important that I [as an established dancer] help build connections to the different Cambodian dance companies so they can better serve their own communities.”

[1] CHIME is a program of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.