Khmer dance master Neak Kru Charya Burt

International adaptions

Charya began to study dance at the School of Fine Arts in 1982 shortly after it was established. In 1989, she graduated and became a faculty member and taught at the school, which by that time had become the Royal University of Fine Arts.

In addition to her teaching, she often performed for foreign delegations and for government and cultural events. She also toured the countryside performing for poor villagers to help educate them about their culture.

In 1992 she toured with the Royal Dance Troupe in North Korea and China. In 1993 she immigrated to the United States. The journey wasn’t easy because she did not have her family nearby and her English was limited.

“I thought that the only way for me to move forward with my art and be able to adjust to this new world was by getting a formal western education. I spent a couple of years taking English classes then I continued on to earn an AA degree from Santa Rosa Junior College and then transferred to Sonoma State University where I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree,” she says.

While going to school she was able to continue her work in the dance form through teaching and performing.

For the first 10 years after being in the US her main focus was on teaching in different Cambodian communities. She taught dance for an after school programme at an elementary school in Santa Rosa. Her first residency was with the organisation APSARA in Stockton. She also has worked with Cambodian communities throughout California and she has done several residencies with Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach.

She also has had multiple residencies with San Jose’s Cambodian Cultural

Dance Group and conducted workshops for The Khmer Ballet of Stockton, Khmer Youth of Modesto, Wat Khmer Modesto Dance Group, Modorodok Khmer Performing Arts of Stockton and the United Khmer Cultural Preservation organisation in Fresno.

Over the past 25 years she has trained hundreds of Khmer dancers including five formally trained apprentices with the support of the Alliance for California Traditional Art’s Apprenticeship programme.

“My work with the Khmer diaspora communities has always been part of my mission because I believe that dance is an essential tool for the inspiration and empowerment of a new generation of Cambodians.

Neak Kru Charya Burt survived the Khmer Rouge era despite the destruction of almost everything around her. When she began attending the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1982, the master dance teachers who were training her were the few who survived by hiding their identities from the Khmer Rouge, and they passed their cultural knowledge on to her.

During that time there was a great deal of effort to try to call back all the surviving artists and master dance teachers from all over the country to Phnom Penh to try to rebuild the arts and culture that were nearly lost.

Another strong influence was her uncle, Chheng Phon, a Cambodian arts scholar and Minister of Culture in the early 1980’s who did some of the earliest work of bringing about Cambodia’s cultural rebirth. Even now in the US, Charya’s passion for cultural renewal has motivated her to plant the seeds for the next generation of traditional Khmer dancers.

“I witnessed all the hard work and commitment by my uncle, Chheng Phon, and a handful of other master teachers and artists. I realised how important it was to be a part of this Cambodian cultural rebirth. It was a time of awakening from the dark nightmare and it was a time to unify the collective effort to try to teach again to train a new generation of dancers and teachers and to perform again.

“I have never forgotten Chheng Phon saying, ‘Culture is the spirit of the nation.’ This spirit was implanted in me then and now I feel obligated to instil this spirit in young Cambodian-Americans here in the United States. I realised then that this was my life calling. No matter where I am I must continue the mission,” she tells The Post.

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