Cambodia International Film Festival

‘Dancers’ by Colin Grafton Captures Last Days of Classical Dances

‘Dancers’ by Colin Grafton Captures Last Days of Classical Dances

Dancers by Colin Grafton
Dancers by Colin Grafton

When Colin Grafton visited Phnom Penh in 1973, he never anticipated that his photos would be such an invaluable marker in the history of Cambodian dance. Having attended a rare classical dance performance in Phnom Penh during Cambodia’s civil war, Grafton’s photos would follow him over three decades later to Tokyo, Japan, where a reunion with a dancer who survived the Khmer Rouge would inspire a return to Cambodia.

Over four decades later, Grafton published a book, simply titled, ‘Dancers’ and launched it on July 10th at the Silapek Trotchaek Pneik by YK Arts House in Cambodia. Grafton’s book is a collection of photos and stories from the 1973 classical dance performance and from his time during the 1980s when he witnessed the revival of Khmer dance in the refugee camp of Khang-I-Dang in Thailand. As Grafton sought to track down the dancers in his photographs, he published their stories as well as their struggles to continue the revival of Khmer dance.

Glimpse into the Past

When Colin Grafton arrived in Phnom Penh in 1973, he had no idea the troubles of the countryside would soon take over the country. By profession, Grafton was a teacher who was in Phnom Penh to design a curriculum for an English-language center. Photographs that were taken by him, document the last days of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge fell, and would be a rare record of the city’s daily life.

Grafton left on a plane for Thailand on April 7, 1975. From Bangkok, he travelled to Laos and then on to Japan, where he stayed on and off for a few years. While working as an interpreter in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand, he photographed Khmer classical dance classes reviving.

“When I took the photos, I never dreamed they would be so important later on,” Grafton explained. “The possibility only materialised in 2006 when one of the dancers, Om Yuvanna, miraculously appeared ‘on my doorstep’, so to speak. This was too much of a coincidence to be ignored.”

While living in Japan, Grafton discovered his photo on a flyer for a special performance by a visiting Khmer dancer. That dancer was none other than Om Yuvuanna, one of the few dancers who survived Cambodia’s civil war, which killed many artists, and one of those he took a photo of that night. Motivated to find out what happened to the other dancers from that night, Grafton returned to Cambodia to seek out the faces in his photos.   

“I always knew I would return to Cambodia at some time, Grafton stated. “When I left in 1975, it was extremely unwillingly, and I had to leave behind many people whom I felt very close to. So I returned in 2014, and found myself suddenly very busy.”

Keiko Kitamura and Colin Grafton
Keiko Kitamura and Colin Grafton

Records of Revival

The book was a culmination of some photo exhibitions, a website, and after further research, was turned into a book. “I tracked down all the principal dancers in the 1974 photos and found what had happened to others who had died,” Grafton continued. “The only dancer who was difficult to find was the one on the cover of the book because she was a folk dancer (not of classical ballet) and other dancers did not know her so well. However, recently I was told that she was alive and in Phnom Penh.”

The ‘Dancers’ book launch welcomed many dancers from the book. “This is perhaps the most enjoyable and stimulating time in my life,” Grafton said. “I am surrounded by young people much of the time who have the same energy and creativity that I found in my friends and students before the Khmer Rouge regime.”

With his lovely wife Keiko Kitamura, Grafton recently attended the Cambodia International Film Festival, where he was inspired by the young artists and storytellers of tomorrow. “I love working with the young filmmakers at Bophana, and meeting and talking to so many young artists and musicians,” Grafton added.

As Grafton looks back at the wonderful people he met, he will always cherish the strong spirits he encountered in the past. “Yuvanna was the catalyst for all this, the one who ‘appeared like an angel’,” Grafton praised. “Phantha is special because I knew her back in 1974, and we worked at the same place together. If we are talking about charisma and vitality, then Voan Savay is the most impressive. She is a giant! As for Kossony, she was the least approachable, perhaps because of her position and definitely because of language barriers, but she impressed me too, in her quiet way.”

“I hope the stories of these ’national heroes’ (though they would be too modest to call themselves that) will inspire the younger generation and impress on them the importance of their traditional culture,” Grafton stated. 

An English version and a summary Khmer translation will be available at the Silapek Trotchaek Pneik by YK Arts House, the National Museum, Monument Books, and possibly Kinokuniya, as well as other outlets. By offering the book at such a low price, Grafton hopes to make these inspiring stories accessible to future generations. 


Written by Sotheavy Nou