NEW YORK — One day, the world will speak of Cambodia without defining it by the raw, recent history of the "killing fields" and the Khmer Rouge.
Consider that shift under way this month in New York, where dozens of the city's top institutions are hosting an unprecedented festival of arts, new and traditional, from the Southeast Asian nation.
As the bare feet of dancers step delicately across the stage at The Joyce Theater, Season of Cambodia CEO Phloeun Prim sits down in the lobby for a discussion.
"Why would a Cambodian festival resonate any more than any other country?" he asks. "Because we can pose as a model of a post-conflict nation. It's to see, when you invest in a generation, what can happen, what can be created. The hope you can create."
Imagine, he says, what Afghanistan could become in 20 years' time.
It's not an idle comparison. Thousands in Cambodia died during the four years in the 1970s when radical Communists took over the country and proclaimed a "Year Zero," largely smashing the country's art and cultural ties.
The 125 artists from Cambodia in the festival comprise refugees, returnees, death camp survivors and a large number who are so young they knew none of it at all.
This new generation is the ultimate audience for Cambodia Living Arts, the group behind the festival that has been busy collecting the loose threads of the country's heritage. Prim is its executive director.
The group's work began when founder Arn Chorn-Pond, who as a child survived in a death camp by playing music to entertain the Khmer Rouge, returned to the area years later to seek his mentor and found him in the street, an outdoor barber, cutting hair.
The two performed together this week at Lincoln Center.
Half of the country now is under 25 years old, Prim says. These connections to the past are needed.
"Yesterday I was visiting the visual artists and I told them, `You are the pillars we are putting in the ground,'" he says. "We need to make sure we are putting you in deep enough to understand your culture but also to see the rest of the world."
Part of the festival, then, is a group of Cambodian artists' residencies in New York.
One of those visual artists in residency is Sareth Svay, who spent 13 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. He was born three years before the Khmer Rouge took over and remembers little of the time before his family made their way to the camp – aside from the dead bodies on the road along the way.
When he returned to Cambodia after time in France, he found a way to explore his home and himself. He walked from the city of Siem Reap – tourists know it as the staging point for the temples of Angkor Wat – to Phnom Penh, while pulling an 80-kilogram (176-pound) ball behind him.
It represented his and his country's history, a kind of ball and chain.
It was also a puzzle to villagers along the way.
"Some people said, `What is this? It's not beautiful. Why isn't it beautiful?'" Svay says from his temporary studio on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. "I said, `Yeah, sure. Sometimes you see things that aren't beautiful.'"
Inside his temporary studio, he says he feels as though he's at home in Cambodia among his mango trees, but then he looks out the window at the Manhattan skyline and bubbles over.
Sometimes, on the ferry to the island, with the passing boats and the helicopters overhead, he thinks, "Where is the cameraman?" He feels he has stepped into a film. He speaks, several times, of liberty.
"I'm so happy to be here," Svay says. Prim first talked about holding a large arts festival overseas a few years ago, "but I never thought it would be true. My heart is pounding. I've also been in Europe, but it's different. There, it's personal. Here, it's energy, collaboration."
The festival sprawls across the city this month and the next. It features shadow puppets in the atrium of the World Financial Center, and contemporary dance at the Guggenheim. There will be talks and events on memory, genocide, diaspora and living archives.
And behind the scenes are five Cambodians whose task is to soak it all in and take it home. They experience the productions backstage, learning how to fundraise, meet funders, do research.
"For me, this festival is a platform really to serve the long-term capacity in Cambodia," Prim says.
The one person he wishes could be in New York to see it all is the king. King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October, led the country between independence and the time before the Khmer Rouge took over. An arts lover, he helped craft a capital, Phnom Penh, in such a way that officials from Singapore came to take notes on city planning, Prim says.
The current king's sister is part of the festival, with the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. The king, Norodom Sihamoni, a ballet dancer himself, was invited. But government duties won out.
"I went to see him many times," Prim says of the whirl of preparations. "I think he's really happy and proud."
One festival event is a film whose name could be a fitting theme: "A River Changes Course."
Season of Cambodia: http://seasonofcambodia.org/