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Charya Burt demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County choreographer confronts lingering aftermath of ’70s Cambodian tragedy through dance

Charya Burt has dedicated her life to preserving a tradition that was nearly lost forever

Charya Burt was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge, led by the notorious dictator Pol Pot, seized power in her native Cambodia in 1975. During its four-year reign, the brutal regime claimed the lives of up to two million people. Whole families were wiped out through executions, starvation, disease and overwork. Burt lost her father and two brothers to the Khmer Rouge.

“I was a child. The memory that has scarred me the most was seeing my mother lose my father and my two older brothers, all in matter of weeks. I watched her crying again and again until no more tears could come out,” said Burt, who was born in the nation’s capital city of Phnom Penh and has been a Windsor resident for the past three decades.

“During the Khmer Rouge time, I felt like my childhood was taken from me. I did not get to be a child, nor could I do what a normal child does. I had no opportunity to go to school. I was forced to work collecting plants or fertilizers so I that I could receive food daily,” she said.

Now nationally known as a choreographer, dancer and crusader for the preservation of traditional Cambodian dance, Burt, 51, still has not forgotten what happened to her family and the country of her childhood. Nor does she want to. And somehow, not all of the memories are painful.

“Traditional dance symbolizes the culture, identity and heritage of Cambodians.” - Charya Burt
Charya Burt demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Charya Burt demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

“One of my fondest memories about living during this time was when I prayed to the moon while I was sitting with my siblings,” she said. “I recall asking the moon for a bowl of rice with barbecue pork, a fried egg and some pickles.”

For Burt, the dark chapter of her native country’s history is still relevant today, and of international importance.

“The genocide crippled Cambodian society and culture,” Burt said. “The Cambodian people have suffered enormous displacement. Many were forced out and settled in the United States.”

That makes preserving her native traditions all the more important.

“Traditional dance symbolizes the culture, identity and heritage of Cambodians,” she explained. “When they are set down in an unknown nation, it is important to return to their cultural identity to help the new generations to embrace who they are.”

Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Ancient art

The study of Cambodia’s traditional dance takes determination and patience, in no small part because of its depth and breadth.

“Classical Cambodian dance can be traced back for 1,000 years,” Burt said. “It is known for its complex hand gestures and elaborate costumes. There are more than 4,500 different gestures and movements.”

While these days Burt maintains a small studio in Windsor, she has spent much of her career working in three geographic areas she identifies as having large concentrations of Cambodian immigrants: Long Beach and Stockton in California, and Lowell, Massachusetts.

“My focus was to teach young dancers and communities and bring this kind of dance to them,” Burt said. “I am primarily a solo artist. My company is culled from dancers in both the Bay Area and Southern California — mostly Long Beach. I also have dancers from the East Coast who join my company for special projects, like the production that recently got postponed at the Cleveland Museum of Art because of the omicron surge.”

Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Her work has won her a long series of fellowships and grants. Last month, Americans for the Arts announced Burt would receive one of two $35,000 Johnson Fellowships for Artists Transforming Communities for 2022. (The other went to Christopher “Mad Dog” Thomas, a Chicago hip-hop dancer, choreographer, activist and youth mentor.)

The Johnson Fellowship celebrates the legacy and work of the late Robert Leroy “Yankee” Johnson, the first executive director of the King County Arts Commission in Seattle.

“The fellowship will help me to continue to work with Cambodian communities both in California and around the country,” Burt said.

Right now, she is finishing community development work on two projects from 2021 funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park.

For one, a dance piece titled “The Rebirth of Apsara: Artistic Lineage, Cultural Resilience and the Resurrection of Cambodian Arts from the Ashes of Genocide,” she plans to travel to Cambodia in April with a videographer and research assistant.

“For this work, I am the lead artist with Paul Dresher and Musical Traditions as the presenter. We plan to premiere this work at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco on Jan. 7, 2024, which is Victory Over Genocide Day, a national holiday in Cambodia. The work will be livestreamed worldwide on that date,” Burt said.

“The other big project is funded by a Creative Work Fund grant that is also supported by the Hewlett Foundation,” she continued. “I am also the lead artist for this project with Mosaic America as the presenter. I call it ‘Beautiful Dark.’ It is about the social and psychological impact of colorism on immigrant communities of color, specifically South and Southeast Asian peoples.” That work is set to premiere in May 2024 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theatre in San Jose.

Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

Part of Burt’s work is not only to perform traditional dance, but also to preserve it. Recently, arts advocacy organization Dance/USA committed to providing a summer archiving fellow who will work full-time to help expand and refine Burt’s archives, which were developed last year with a grant from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

“Charya is part of the slow and laborious process of bringing back to life the traditional dance of a people.” - Lily Kharrazi, director of special initiatives for California Traditional Arts in San Francisco

“Charya Burt is a living example of a firebird rising from the ashes of Cambodia’s devastation with grace and dignity,” said Lily Kharrazi, director of special initiatives for California Traditional Arts in San Francisco. “Charya is part of the slow and laborious process of bringing back to life the traditional dance of a people.”

Difficult past

The road from Phnom Penh to Windsor was a long one for Burt. Despite the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Burt remained in Cambodia, where she still has family today, until her adulthood. She still has four sisters who live in Phnom Penh. Her mother, who had been living with Charya’s sister in Santa Rosa for nearly 20 years, died last March.

Artists of all kinds were targets of oppression, and Burt’s uncle, a teacher and director of the School of Fine Art in Phnom Penh, was in danger. But he hid his identity and survived. After the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, her uncle served as the country’s minister of culture and helped to reopen the school, now the Royal University of Fine Art.

Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Charya Burt uses storytelling hand gestures as she demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

“My uncle Chheng Phon, a Cambodian arts scholar, used to say, ‘Culture is the spirit of a nation,”’ Burt recalled. “I started dancing shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.”

Burt studied and then taught at the university, which remains the most important school of classical dance in the country. She settled in the United States in 1993 with her American husband, Rob Burt, who was traveling in Cambodia on his way to Thailand when they met.

Rob Burt, who taught drama, English and world geography at Cook Junior High in Santa Rosa, was on a paid sabbatical leave from Santa Rosa City Schools. His aim in Southeast Asia was to develop English programs through drama techniques for Santa Rosa’s then-burgeoning Southeast Asian immigrant population.

“As she was the only one there on the day I arrived who spoke some English, she was the one who showed me around, and I would come back a couple more times to observe her classes,” Rob said.

“I then extended my sabbatical a year — nonpaid — and returned to Cambodia where Charya got me a job teaching playwriting to students from the National Theatre and the University of Fine Arts,” he added. “It was during time that I asked Charya to marry me. I promised Charya’s uncle that I would do everything I could to support Cambodian Classical dance.”

“We fell in love,” Charya said. “We got married in 1992 and immigrated to the United States in 1993. Robert was a drama teacher in Santa Rosa for 35 years. He retired in 2016. Now he works with me as executive director of Charya Burt Cambodian Dance.”

Rob Burt summed up his duties this way: “I’m her grant writer, ghost writer, videographer, driver (though she drives all over Northern California herself as well), production manager, creative partner, research assistant, archivist assistant and, well, you name it.”

“Charya has dedicated her life to preserving classical Cambodian dance, which was nearly destroyed during the Khmer Rouge genocide,” - Anne Huang, board president of Dance/USA

Charya Burt’s work has won her wide recognition in the dance world.

“Charya has dedicated her life to preserving classical Cambodian dance, which was nearly destroyed during the Khmer Rouge genocide,” said Anne Huang of San Francisco.

Huang is board president of Dance/USA and executive director of World Arts West, a nonprofit that supports more than 450 Bay Area dance companies that are sustaining and celebrating the world’s cultural legacy.

Charya Burt demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Charya Burt demonstrates Cambodian classical dance at her home studio in Windsor, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

“For the last three decades, Charya has worked tirelessly with Cambodian communities in California who have been deeply impacted by the genocide,” Huang added.

“Charya’s work is not only deeply inspiring, as she sustains and generously shares her dance with both her students and audiences, but also very important for cultivating the next generation of Cambodian dancers both in California and back home in Cambodia,” said Julie Mushet, former executive director of World Arts West.

“It doesn’t matter where we are, We still must reach as far as we can.” - Charya Burt

For the Burts, the work of preserving and sharing Charya’s native culture will never end. Scattered by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodians can still share their common culture.

“It doesn’t matter where we are,” Charya Burt said. “We still must reach as far as we can.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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