Once the Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s prima ballerina, Voan Savay is passing on her passion and skills to the next generation. Editor Marissa Carruthers meets her as she starts training a new troupe. Photography by Lim Sokchanlina.

Voan Savay’s gentle brown eyes light up as she talks about her lifelong love affair with Cambodian dance. “I was born to dance and, apart from the period of the Pol Pot regime, I’ve committed myself to the arts for the whole of my life,” she says.

Voan was first introduced to traditional dance at the age of seven, when her parents took her to the Royal Palace to watch students rehearsing. She immediately fell in love with the graceful moves, elaborate costumes and enchanting stories the dancers told, and at the age of nine devoted her weekends to training with the Royal Ballet troupe.

As a natural, Voan quickly rose to the top of her game. By the age of 12, she was dancing with the troupe across Cambodia. Two years later she accompanied them on an overseas tour that took in South Korea, China and Myanmar. In 1965, at the age of 15, she was crowned the principal dancer, a position she held until 1970 when the royal family collapsed.

However, she kept on dancing until April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. Along with the rest of the capital, Voan and her family were evicted from Phnom Penh and sent to the countryside to work. With artists being targeted by the Khmer Rouge – it is estimated 90 percent of the country’s creatives died under the regime – Voan knew the only way to survive was to stay quiet and obey orders.

“I was so frightened,” she recalls. “I tried to keep my background a secret and hide my identity and work very hard in the field. After about a year, I became very sick from working and starvation.”

Following the fall of the regime in 1979, Voan moved back to Phnom Penh and married another dancer. There she was able to rekindle her passion for the art, performing for the coalition government of that time.

In 1981, the couple decided to leave Cambodia and headed towards a refugee camp on the Thai border. “When we arrived, we found so many orphans,” she says. “I felt if I walked another step across the border it would mean I abandoned my country, my culture. Everything.”

Compelled into action, Voan set up a dance school in the refugee camp, passing on her skills to 53 children. After five years, fighting spread to the border and Voan and tens of thousands of others were forced to move to a camp in Thailand, where she continued with her school. News quickly spread, and the troupe performed across Thailand. In 1991, after almost a decade in the camps, Voan and her young dancers were invited to the USA to carry out a three-month tour.

Voan returned later in the year to Phnom Penh and continued with her dancing, extensively touring France. After the 1997 coup in Cambodia, Voan and her family decided to move to France, where they lived for two decades teaching Cambodian traditional dance.

Last year, Voan moved back to Cambodia after being invited by Prince Sisowath Tesso and Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, director of the Cambodian Royal Ballet and who Voan performed with as second dancer during the 1960s, to help train the next generation of Cambodian ballerinas.

And now she has been recruited as artistic director to form and train a new troupe, supported by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). The troupe started rehearsals in February and are gearing up to hit CLA’s stage at the National Museum in April for the next season of evening performances.

“Even when I was living in France, I kept training the next generation,” says Voan, having spent the previous two hours shouting out instructions to the trainee dancers or stepping onto the stage to guide their body into the right position.

“I work hard to protect our culture and I feel very lucky to know these skills and be able to pass my knowledge on to the next generation.”

As well as passing on her skills to the country’s next generation of dancers, Voan is trying to rebuild Cambodia’s traditional dance to what it was in its heyday. She says there were 4,500 moves originally, however, only 1,000 have survived the test of time.

“In my heart I feel very sorry that we have lost these moves,” she says. “I want to bring them back because this treasure isn’t just for Cambodia but for the world.”

For more information on the new troupe, visit cambodianlivingarts.org.