The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, always one big happy party, starts this week. My preview in yesterday’s Chronicle:
“Charya Burt fans her fingers like an exotic flower, lowers to her knees with her back leg bent skyward and bounces gently to the xylophone-like tones of a Cambodian roneat ek. It’s a warm spring day in a Santa Rosa high school auditorium, but Burt is wearing traditional Cambodian attire: tight silk bodice, folded sarong pants — and, far more unusual — a microphone pack with a black wire snaking up her back.
Her throaty voice sounds natural as birdsong, but for a dancer to also sing is revolutionary in Cambodian classical dance. Even more extraordinary are the words that follow: “Isolated from tomorrow, surrounded by beautiful antiquities, surrounded by loneliness,” she says, then takes tiny soft steps as her arms form exquisitely sculpted arcs.
This is Burt’s new Cambodian dance take on Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” titled “Blue Roses” and depicting the fearful loneliness of a Cambodian princess instead of a fragile Southern belle. That may sound bold enough, but some of the real risk-taking is in the subtleties. In addition to musicians on the roneat ek and sompho drum, a violinist and cellist sit onstage, playing melodies created for Cambodian Pinpeat orchestra on Western instruments. “This was a way to merge the two cultures together, because I’m influenced by Western culture and Cambodian,” Burt explains during a rehearsal break, her softly smiling face as serene as in performance. “I want to create living art, not a museum where you can’t touch.”
Burt is far from the only “traditional” dance artist acting on this sentiment. At this month’s 29th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival — during which Burt’s “Blue Roses” will premiere on the second of three programs — you can see just about every dance form imaginable: Chinese lion dances and Spanish flamenco, hip-shaking Tahitian spectacles and smoothly gliding Korean rituals. But much of what you will see this year will be brand new. Of the 29 Bay Area groups taking over the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre’s stage, eight will present world premieres. Four of these are commissioned by the festival’s producer, World Arts West, but the new works are also coming forward unprompted, in traditions as differing as Mexican folklorico and Indian odissi, West African and Filipino folk.
“Something’s happening across the field,” says Worlds Arts West Executive Director Julie Mushet. “So many of the performances this year are thrilling because you see a shift in perception, that these are not static forms. Anyone who sees Charya’s piece will understand that Cambodian classical dance is still evolving.” ”
Click here for the full piece, including the story of Charya Burt’s training in Cambodia, where an estimated 80 percent of traditional dance artists died under the Khmer Rouge.