World Arts West
SF Ethnic Dance Festival


Charya Burt Cambodian Dance

First appearance in SF EDF: 1997

Charya Burt Cambodian Dance—established in 1993 after Artistic Director Charya Burt immigrated to Northern California from Cambodia—preserves and promotes Cambodian dance through instruction, workshops, performances, and new works. Charya has performed throughout the US. She studied with Cambodia’s dance masters learning the full repertory of classical dances at Royal University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh. She was a traditional artist and dance faculty member at the Phnom Penh Royal University of Fine Arts. Charya has performed throughout the USA, including at the Kennedy Center, and is a recipient of the Isadora Duncan Award for Outstanding Achievement in Individual Performance. Company members are long-time students of Charya and of Khmer Arts Academy, Long Beach.


GENRE: Classical
TITLE: Heavenly Garden
DANCERS: Charya Burt, Reaksmey Lath, Sophy Julie Nuth, Khannia Ok

Photo by Mark Muntean

Heavenly Garden renews an ancient understanding of heavenly perfection. In an idyllic garden, a princess and her maidens journey in search of eternal beauty, embracing the majestic, peaceful natural world. Charya Burt’s expressive choreography transformed the boundaries of tradition, incorporating live singing, spoken word, and classical Cambodian gesture and movement.

The music, by Cambodia’s revered percussive Pin Peat Court Orchestra, is traditional accompaniment for court dance, shadow theater, dance-drama, and temple ceremony. In this style, familiar motifs illustrate entrances, exits, and movements like flying or walking, and a chorus usually narrates. In this piece, Charya sings—

Join with me, my maidens, as we journey
to the heavenly garden.
When we arrive our hearts will be filled
with delight.
Feel the soft, pulsating wind as we gaze
on nature’s bounty
Offering our own beauty to that which
surrounds us.
Begin now to dance peacefully - happily
Smelling the intoxicating aromas of
surrounding flowers
Let us capture this majestic moment.

This exquisite form is traced back to carvings, inscriptions, and court rituals of the Khmer Angkorian Period more than a thousand years ago. Long a medium of prayer and prophecy, its loss was immeasurable when the Pol Pot Regime (1975-79) systematically prohibited dance, religion, and ritual ceremony: an estimated 90% of all Cambodian artists perished under this regime. Through the dedication and generosity of dance masters who survived the killing fields, classical dance has been revived, and is today a beloved egalitarian art form.

This piece was created in 2014 to evoke the defining legacy of the Cambodian people, as a mesmerizing expression of myth and spirit. The princess’ dress reflects formal Khmer attire worn by queens or brides—tight-fitting shirts with sequined sash, and elaborate jewelry, belts, and headdress, made with golden metals. The dedication of Cambodian dancers extends into the dressing room, as they are traditionally sewn into their costumes for two to three hours; and most of the costume is made by hand.


GENRE: Traditional and Contemporary
TITLE: Blossoming Antiquities
DANCERS: Charya Burt, Chey Chankethya, Sophy Julie Nuth
COMPOSER: Alexis Alrich
MUSICIANS: Alexis Alrich (piano), Ruth Lane (cello), Darcy Rindt (viola)

Cambodian dancer and choreographer Charya Burt presents Blossoming Antiquities: Rodin’s Encounter with the Celestial Dancers of Cambodia. This is a traditional Khmer performance and a personal response to drawings and sketches made by

19th-century French artist Auguste Rodin, a creative dialogue between artists and epochs. Ancient Cambodia meets 1800s Europe meets contemporary America; and dance meets music meets visual art. This conversation began more than 1,000 years ago, among the ancient carvings, inscriptions, and complex court rituals of

Cambodia’s Angkorian Khmer, where exquisite dances of prayer, prophecy, and kingship were born. In 1906, the discussion traveled to France, when Cambodian King Sisowath brought his Royal Ballet to Paris and French sculptor Auguste Rodin was enamored by the graceful postures and elegant hand gestures of the court dancers’, saying how the dancers had “brought antiquity to life again.” Rodin followed the ballet to the Colonial Exhibition in Marseille, creating one hundred and fifty sketches. He wrote that the dance that held the delicacy and beauty of flowers and a “natural knowledge of harmony and truth.”

The collaboration continues today with a new inspiration, affection, and respect. The melodies of a Cambodian pin peat orchestra merge with a contemporary cello solo, as a celestial princess—Charya Burt—leads her dancers into a heavenly garden, symbolizing the magical world that captivated Rodin. The choreography, grounded in classical form, reflects flowing brush strokes of Rodin’s watercolor sketches, with costumes also based on his drawings. Visual artist Mario Uribe responds in real time, sketching the dancers, and his artwork is projected as snapshots of dance in time.

Blossoming Antiquities was developed through a collaborative process, originated by Charya Burt. It’s a model beyond the “collage” presentation of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. World Arts West recognizes the San Francisco Bay Area as unique among cities in the world for its breadth and quality of culturally-specific traditional dance. This performance at the Legion of Honor begins a long-anticipated plan to foster multi-platform, multi-venue, city-wide events; to work with companies and art institutions towards ground-breaking collaborations that reinvigorate and sustain cultural traditions.The conversation of dance is an ancient one, and (as Rodin illustrated) it can creatively expand through collaboration, challenging assumptions of what is possible within and among traditional forms.


Charya BurtTITLE: Caressing Nostalgia
GENRE: Contemporary
Samsun van Loon (cello)


In Caressing Nostalgia, master Cambodian dancer Charya Burt expresses a nostalgia for her revered past. This new choreography honors Cambodian tradition with a grounded fluidity and stance of bent knees and flexed toes. It also adds clarity and expression to classical gesture and movement, and adds some Cambodian folk dance steps. In place of the tight-fitting golden royal Khmer dress, Charya dances in contemporary simplicity; retaining only some temple jewelry and a traditional hairstyle. She replaces the traditional Pin Peat court orchestra with a cellist, playing a contemporary composition and a song adapted by Ms. Burt from Cambodian classical poetry.

Oh Magnificent Angkor, standing in such sublime splendor
Built by the magical hands of our ancestors
Symbolizing the Golden Era of our precious Khmer Civilization
Your ancient beauty inspires my newfound dreams

Charya says, “Nostalgia means that in my heart I carry Cambodia of the ninth century, and yet I live in the twenty-first century. The ancient temple dancers were able to create such powerful art work, and those dances still speak to me.”

Khmer Classical Dance—Royal Ballet of Cambodia—was closely associated with the Khmer court for over a thousand years, as traced in ancient carvings. Khmer dancers offered prayer and prophecy, retelling legends of origin with ceremonial performances of dance, graceful hand gestures, and stunning costumes. The Royal Ballet practically ceased to exist when the Khmer Rouge murdered most master dancers and musicians. After Pol Pot’s defeat in 1979, survivors have revived the ancient repertory. Classical Cambodian dancers train intensively for years to master this sacred and symbolic tribute to Cambodia’s cultural legacy. The form also evolves, as Charya Burt says, “one step at time.”

Caressing Nostalgia was created by Charya Burt in 2010. The music is from Blue Roses, written for solo cello by Alexis Alrich, performed by noted cellist Samsun van Loon.


Title: Villeer Chruar Knear (Intersections Through Time)
Charya Burt
: Charya Burt (principal), Sophy Julie Nuth, Chamnan Renz

Villeer Chruar Knear
(Intersections Through Time) explores a dancer's journey from isolation as an American immigrant into a world of newfound possibilities. Chayra Burt's choreography is based on classical form and vocabulary, and she has chosen four musical pieces to reflect her personal transformation as an artist.

First, Olo Sralai expresses the isolation of the immigrant artist. Next, a pin peat orchestra piece describes a wondrous, colorful garden to symbolize the New World:

Oh beautiful spring/With endless blossoming flowers
Steeped in a heavenly garden/Aromas that fill my heart with delight/Creating sweet sanctuary/As my sorrows ease away

Then a combined sampo and sralai symbolizes transformation; and—to evoke new possibilities in America—a pin peat orchestration interprets Pat Metheny’s "Above the Treetops."

The dancers wear traditional royal Khmer attire: tight-fitting shirts (which dancers are sewn into), sequined sashes, elaborate jewelry, golden belts, and kbag headdresses. The fans symbolize a balance between Cambodian and American culture.  



TITLE: Robam Apsara (The Celestial Dancers)
CHOREOGRAPHER: Queen Sisowath Kossamak Nearyroth
DANCERS: Charya Burt, Reaksmey Lath, Sophy Julie Nuth, Callie Ok, Chamnan Renz
INTERNATIONAL GUEST MUSICIANS: The Khmer Arts Academy Ensemble -
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro (Artistic Director/vocals), Meas Saem (roneat ek), Meas Sambo (kong touch),Ros Sokun (sompho/sko thom),
Touch Sarin (sralai)

Classical Cambodian dance can be traced back to carvings, inscriptions, and complex court rituals from the Khmer Angkor period. Stone carvings in the 12th century Temples of Angkor Wat, depict over 2,000 celestial dancers—the apsaras—wearing ornate headdresses, gesturing gracefully with raised arms, pointing toes in a lively dance. This is the group's first public presentation of the traditional Robam Apsara—presenting a traditional pin peat ensemble from the acclaimed Khmer Arts Academy.

Long ago, gods and demons churned a great sea of milk—by pulling at opposite ends of a divine serpent coiled around a submerged mountain. From this churning sea, the apsaras were born. One apsara, Mera, made love with the hermit, Kampu, and gave birth to the nation of Kampu-Mera or Kampuchea. In Robam Apsara, Mera and her maids are sent down from heaven. As the dance begins, the apsaras are frozen in time. Gradually, under the influence of earthly music, the ancient Angkor Wat sculptures come alive. They dance in an earthly garden, and these words echo the voices of the heavens:

Charya Burt dances Mera, dressed in white to represent purity. The dancers, all women, carry golden flowers to symbolize happiness and well being of Cambodian people. Cambodian dancers are sewn into elaborate handmade costumes, a process which can take two to three hours. They are then adorned with neckpieces, belts of silk brocade, delicate jewelry, and finally, elaborate golden headdresses.

The Khmer Arts Ensemble is an internationally acclaimed classical dance and music troupe. Co-founder and Artis­tic Director Sophiline Cheam Shapiro graduated from Phnom Penh’s University of Fine Arts and taught there from 1988 to 1991. She is a choreographer, dancer, vocalist and educator whose original works—giving new life to Cambodian classical dance—have been performed worldwide. Today's pin peat musicians are Cambodian performing artists who studied and served as faculty in Cambodia's National Department of Performing Arts, Phnom Penh’s National School of Fine Arts, and Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace.



TITLE: Pka Kolab Khiev (Blue Roses)
GENRE: Contemporary
COSTUMES: Sotheary Au
DANCERS: Charya Burt, Promsoden Ok, Chamnan Renz
MUSICIANS: Alexis Alrich (composer, transcriber, and sompho), Sotheary Au (finger cymbals), Charya Burt (singer), Hande Erdem (violin), Beth Snellings (cello), Andrew Yinn (xylophone)

Pka Kolab Khiev (Blue Roses), is an innovative new work inspired by the character of Laura from the Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie. Blue Roses explores the life of a Khmer princess who masks her unhappiness by surrounding herself with familiar things – her “glass menagerie.” She yearns to break out of her safe world to experience a new life, but becomes frightened by the unknown. Despite the promise of a new world, the princess retreats back, as the pull of tradition is too strong.

Symbolically this piece explores the counter tension between new social expectations and traditional values. Like other Asian women in the United States, many Cambodian women are able to have professional careers and live independently, yet feel compelled to follow more traditional norms. The cultural constraints of living in immigrant communities can make the adoption of contemporary ways remarkably difficult.

Pkaa Kolab Khiev is made possible in part by funding from the Dance: Creation to Performance program and by the James Irvine Foundation, and is administrated by Dance/USA. The music is supported by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, with funding from the California Arts Council, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, and the National Endowment for the Arts.


TITLE OF PIECE: Forever My Ancestors
DANCERS: Charya Burt, Sokny Hin, Chamnan Renz

Charya Burt’s Classical Cambodian Dance Company performs Forever My Ancestors which is a new piece honoring Khmer ancestors. The dance is an offering and tribute to the dance ancestors who carefully preserved and passed down the precious Khmer tradition. Similar to royal ceremonial dress, the fabrics, jewelry and headwear is made of golden metals, and the headdress, shaped like a Buddhist shrine, symbolizes a mountain at the center of the universe. Before each performance, dancers are sewn into their elaborate costumes, which can take up to two hours.


Queen Kossamak Nearyrath, mother of King Norodom Sihanouk
Pin Peat Ensemble

Charya Burt performs the lyrical Robam Chhouy Chhay, which was originally choreographed under the guidance of Queen Kossamak Nearyrath, mother of King Norodom Sihanouk, in the 1950's, depicting the spirit and character of a young princess' blossoming beauty. This dance was created for the King's daughter, and praises her composed demeanor and immense beauty. The movements demand flexibility, balance, spatial precision and control. Charya learned it in the 1980s as part of the repertoire taught at the Royal University of Fine Arts where she graduated and taught.

The Pin Peat, a Court-style orchestra, accompanies the dance. This type of orchestra is largely percussive and is considered the oldest and most revered type of musical formation. The costumes, all hand-made, are adorned with silk and metallic brocade. The style reflects images of divine beings descending from heaven to bless the earth with peace and prosperity.

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