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Dancing in Cambodia, Surviving in Seattle

A member of the Cambodian Cultural Heritage Dance Troupe performs the Robam Choun Por, also known as the Blessing Dance.

April 13, 2018

Last week, the Southeast Asia Center had the honor of being part of The ART of Survival at Seattle City Hall. Adrian Alarilla talks more about what went down.


‘We thought everything was lost, that we would never hear our music again, never see our dance.’ They could not stop crying; people wept through the entire length of the performance. It was a kind of rebirth: a moment when the grief of survival became indistinguishable from the joy of living.

Amitav Ghosh’s words from his classic book Dancing in Cambodia seemed to reverberate throughout Seattle City Hall last Saturday, when the Cambodian American community of Seattle held “The ART of Survival,” the kickoff event for the month-long festivities of Khmer New Year. In what was probably the biggest Cambodian American gathering at the City Hall ever, artists from all over the Pacific Northwest, elsewhere on the West Coast, and Cambodia, celebrated their community and cultural heritage through traditional and contemporary Khmer art.

The event began with a Smot performance by local artist Sopheap Soum. Smot is a centuries old art form of Khmer Buddhist chanting, and accompanies several important cultural functions including religious events, weddings, and funerals. This was followed by a Robam Choun Por performance by a member of the Cambodian Cultural Heritage Dance Troupe. Also known as the Blessing Dance, it is usually performed at the beginning of ceremonies. The golden goblet held by the dancer is filled with flower blossoms that the dancer tosses to the audience to spread blessing. The Northwest Angkor Dance Troupe also performed the Robam Tivea Propey.

Venerable Prenz Sa-Ngoun performed a Bangskol ceremony to offer blessings to the spirits of those who perished during the Cambodian Genocide, as well as introduced his short documentary titled Sadhu: The Art of Survival, a project that highlights Cambodian American artists across the westcoast of the United States. Phounam Pin performed a modern rendition of the Peacock Dance mixed with contortionist acts. Spoken word and theatrical pieces were performed by James Santana, Sreymom Serey, Tyler Cheam, Bunthay Cheam and Many Uch. There were also films made by the Southeast Asia Young Men’s Group, as well as by award-winning local filmmakers Tristan Seniuk and Voleak Sip. Singers such as Davey Tsunami and JusMoni aka Moni Tep also graced the stage, and visual artists like Molica Chau, Jenny Chhim, Keo Sanh, and Tara Kim showcased their works throughout the day. Food was prepared by Maly Mam, an experimental chef who blends traditional Khmer cuisine with his Cambodian American identity. Jenna Grant, Judith Henchy and I also had the honor of representing the Southeast Asia Center by showcasing The Age of the Kampuchea Picture, a collaborative video installation we made.

The ART of Survival successfully bridged generations, showcasing the past, present, and future of the Khmer community. But if you missed it, don’t worry! New Year Month continues all April with one of the biggest community events being the White Center Cambodian New Year Celebration on April 28, 10:30 AM, at 9823 15th Ave SW, Seattle, WA.