In Pnomh Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, or in Siem Reap, the doorstep of the famous Angkor temple complex, tourists can drop anywhere from a few riel to a Franklin to watch reenactments — some more authentic than others — of the traditional Khmer dances that were an integral part of court life. The Khmer court ruled all of what is Southeast Asia today and luxuriated in the miraculous carved-stone metropolis known as the City of Temples.

Young girls — only girls — from every corner and social stratum of the empire were recruited for the hundreds-strong Khmer Royal Ballet, trained from the age of six for a repertoire of romances, myths, pieces about the Buddha’s life, and ubiquitous South Asian epics such as the story of Sita and Rama known as The Ramayana. In elaborate, bejeweled costumes with improbable headdresses, temple dancers took on roles as the earthly representations of the heavenly apsaras and devatas, entertainers of the gods, whose figures Khmer artists portrayed on temple walls. Their highly stylized, graceful movements resembled a mercurial mashup of tai chi and American sign language, where each gesture, or kbach, has a specific meaning.

This ancient form of expression mostly disappeared centuries ago, when the Khmer empire and its Royal Ballet were swallowed up by the jungle just as the Italian Renaissance was about to flower on the other side of the globe. What remained of it, in the Thai-influenced steps that characterized Kampuchian traditional dance in the early 20th century, was very nearly wiped from human memory by the systematized butchery of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, when every intellectual, artist, and educated Cambodian in Pol Pot’s agrarian communist utopia was targeted for death.

Yet it was to these ancient styles that world-traveled French choreographer Emmanuèle Phuon found herself drawn two years ago. That these dance styles were all but lost in their pure forms mattered not at all to her, for Phuon was more interested in reinvention than in mimicry. After years of dancing with and for artists as varied as Elisa Monte, Martha Clarke, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Shen Wei (whose Cambodian-infused work also appears in this year’s festival), the Cambodian-born emigré had begun wondering whether she might apply modern Western techniques to the traditional Khmer styles of her homeland.

After all, Phuon observes, the two styles have more in common than what might be immediately apparent. “In the West, modern dance is derived from ballet, and in many aspects Khmer dance resembles ballet. They both were court dances, required many years of training to achieve unnatural positions, and in both cases they were essentially narrative, called for elaborate costumes, and were extremely codified.”

So the question arose for Phuon: Could Khmer dance take a similar path, or could it not at least be inspired by “new” ideas from the West? “I wanted to see if stylistically we could use the traditional vocabulary as a base, but then transform it, cut it apart, mix it with floor work. In short, push it as far as possible away from its original form and yet keep it recognizable.”

But tinkering with what’s considered a national cultural treasure is frowned upon in some quarters, and many Cambodians wondered what needed “fixing” about such a seemingly perfect expressive form, as much a part of the national culture as the Angkor temples. For Phuon, the purpose was not to erase or edit the past — the Khmer Rouge had achieved that quite well enough 35 years before — but rather to build upon it. Her intent was not to preserve the art form, as most previous efforts had attempted, but to develop this unique cultural heritage into a more contemporary direction. With help from Fred Frumberg, an American who started an NGO to sup­port the Cambodian Perform­ing Arts, and Phnom Penh-based Amrita Performing Arts, Phuon spent three weeks in 2008 at the Gilman Foundation’s White Oak Plantation in Florida, workshopping her idea with a team of dancers.

The result, which premiered in Phnom Penh in 2009, was a solo work entitled Khmeropédies I, based upon the traditional character of the Apsara, a celestial dancer whose task is to transmit the prayers of the common people to the gods. On her knees, crawling and rolling upon the floor, she prays, telling the gods stories. She experiences frustration when confronted with the lack of a godly response, only to resume her prayers. The set and costumes are minimal: in the background is a black-and-white picture, a close-up of an eye of the Buddha. The dancer wears a white top and white pants to symbolize purity.

“In Cambodian dancing there are essentially four characters,” Phuon explains. “The male role, the female role, the giant, and the monkey. Gender and body structure determine how a dancer is given a part: males can play giants or monkeys only; females play giants, male, or female roles; ‘bigger’ women play the giants or the male role.”

Phuon followed up with Khmeropédies II, a piece for four dancers that levels a more postmodern eye on its subject. In it, three young dancers experiment with their respective roles, performing them to Western music and adding elements of ballet and contemporary dance. In this piece, says Phuon, “When the monkey tries to be a man and wants to dance with a woman, when the women do not want to display the required smile anymore, and when all three dance to Cambodian rap music, they are scorned by their teacher and master who reminds them of their duty to uphold and respect tradition.”

If Khmeropédies II sounds didactic, that’s no accident. “It was meant for an audience in Cambodia, where the debate of tradition versus innovation is still very relevant and linked to questions of identity and nationalism. Innovation in this case tries to find its source in Western dance and theatrical processes, with or without success.” But the approach, she says, is not merely an intellectual one. It attempts to remain within the realm of entertainment and popular art.

The recorded score relies upon traditional Khmer music, songs from the Cambodian rap group Tiny Toones, as well as works by Ravel, Debussy, and their French avant garde contemporary Erik Satie’s early ambient compositions Trois Gymnopédies, from which the dances take their name.

“The goal was not to erase this beautiful dance and to ‘move on,’ but, on the contrary, to make it coexist with many different styles and make it relevant again, to draw the Cambodian youth to many dance concerts and once again give dance the importance it has had for many centuries.”

For the arts, relevance is a fraught term in Cambodia today, even more so perhaps than in the developed world where smartphones, social networks, Angry Birds, tablet computers, a universe of adumbrated online content and humanities-targeted budget cuts conspire to sap modern youths of any germ of interest in artistic expression beyond the confines of YouTube and the local cineplex. Cambodian kids are as distracted as the rest of us, to say nothing of being immeasurably poorer, but their gaze is also deliberately fixed on the present and future instead of on the horrors of that nation’s recent past.

“We have stayed away from the Khmer Rouge story, for a simple reason: The dancers were not interested in going there. Most of them are young and want to look into the future. They are interested in what they can become. I’ve seen many [dance] pieces on the subject and there have been countless books on it. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to look forward now.”

Phuon herself was born and lived in Phnom Penh until 1975. She and her mother Yvette Pierpaoli — the real-life French humanitarian upon whom John Le Carre based his novel The Constant Gardener — managed to leave the country at the last moment with a French passport, yet her father and two sisters were captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today a single sister survives the family on her father’s side.

And those “traditional” dance performances in Pnomh Penh and Siem Reap? “Most classical dance in Cambodia is performed for tourists and is suffering from that. The performances are short, designed for short attention spans. They are a mere caricature of what Cambodian dance used to be.

“To make the decision to be a dancer in such a poor country can only be motivated by passion and faith in art,” she continues. “There are not many opportunities for dancers in Cambodia to dance, outside of the three main companies or for tourist shows. This incredible heritage must be preserved — and it must also evolve in order to thrive. The challenge is to shift its context from court dance, religious dance, and instrument of power to an independent art form for a new space and mindset: the stage.”

Patrick Sharbaugh is the City Paper’s former arts editor. He currently teaches in Vietnam at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Saigon.