CAMBODIA'S centuries-old tradition of masked dance was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge 's Killing Fields'' regime, but a handful of artists managed to keep it alive and are now working to pass it along to a new generation.

Sun Ritley's father and grandfather were both performers of the Lakhon Khol masked dance, but the  ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge - who scorned most art as decadent - banned its study when he was a child in the 1970s.

Now, 48, Sun Rithy leads one of the last Lakhon Khol troupes in Cambodia, made up of about 20 performers and students aged six to 15. For him, teaching a new generation is a matter of survival for the nation. ''I don't want Lakhon Khol, to go extinct,'' Sun Rithy told Reuters..

Lakhon Khol was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighboring Thailand's version of the dance, known as, Khon.

There are different variations in Southeast Asia, all featuring dancers wearing elaborate painted masks depicting the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic poem in which prince rescues his wife from a demon with the help from an army of moneys.

But in Cambodia, the art form is still struggling to recover from the Khmer Rouge, under whose genocidal 1975-79 rule at least 1.7 million people, including artists, dancers and writers, died, mostly from starvation, overwork, disease, execution or torture.

''In the Khmer Rouge. I was young and they didn't teach people dance. Lakhon Khol was destroyed.,'' said Sun Rithy, who started to learn the dance when he was 14, after Khmer Rouge was ousted from power.

Ahead of a recent rehearsal, students stretched their legs and hands at the troupe's newly built theater at Wat Svay Audet, a Buddhist temple outside the capital, Phnom Penh.

Pom Park, 49, said his 11-year-old son, Puma Meta, was attending the dance class. ''I want to have my son trained to perform so that in the future we won't lose the ancient art,''  he said.

Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Pheurng Sackona, said the dance needed immediate preservation and urged all people to get involved.

''Elderly performers are trying to preserve the dance at this  Wat Svay Andet,'' Phoeurng Sackona told Reuters. ''But it is up to young people whether they agree or not to receive knowledge from from the elders.''

Thailand's version of the dance has fared better than its neighbor's, but practitioner's still depend on recruiting a new generation of performers.

Thailand's Khon tradition, originally centered on the royal court, is now taught by many schools and universities. [Agencies]


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