DANCE, THE SPIRIT OF CAMBODIA. Artistic director, Proeung Chhieng. Program:

"Robam Apsara," "Robam Tunsaong," "Solo Opakar," "Chhayam," "Robam Makar" and

"Reamker" (excerpt), all to traditional Cambodian music. Seen Tuesday at Joyce

Theater, Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, Manhattan. Through Sunday.

IT'S EASY TO think you've stumbled into a temple instead of a theater.

Incense perfumes the air; delicate chimes shimmer briefly before fading into

silence, and elaborately costumed figures kneel before an array of ornate

masks, golden crowns and heaping bowls of fruit surrounding a bronzed Buddha.

But it's not a mistake. You are indeed at the Joyce Theater, and until

Sunday, this prayerful ceremony will precede one of the most exquisite - and,

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not that long ago, one of the most endangered - of theatrical rituals: a

performance of Cambodian dance.

With its antic monkeys, elegant goddesses and impeccable princes, the

court-based classical dance of Cambodia has all the range and sophistication of

ballet. The village dances - including one for a flute-playing hunter, a

tiger, a bumblebee and an entrancing pair of flirty wild oxen - incorporate

musicians into the action and display an earthy humor that in no way diminishes

their refinement. Both of these ancient traditions were devastated by the

vicious, culture-hating fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge regime and the political

upheavals that ensued.

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So the 42 dancers and musicians from the Royal University of Fine Arts,

Phnom Penh, touring as "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia," are more than

entertainers. They are part of a national effort to recover their culture.

Although that might be reason enough for a visit to the Joyce this week, the

real reasons are on the stage: in the serene, utterly transporting textures of

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the gongs, drums, reeds and cymbals of the "pin peat," or musical ensemble; in

the sinuous line and magical balance of the women, who dance the roles of both

heroes and heroines in mirrored, gold-encrusted costumes that are themselves

masterpieces of art, and in the rollicking mimicry and acrobatic tricks of the

men in the more rambunctious numbers.

The first half of the program provides examples of both the classic and the

comic. Wearing an otherworldly smile, Sok Sokhoeun leads a stately ensemble of

six women in "Robam Apsara," based on the dancing figures carved into the

temples of Ankgor Wat. Curling fingers, bending knees and flexing feet move

with breathtaking precision and supernatural glamour. The mood changes

instantly when Ourn Sophon and Sok Tong, wearing horns strapped to their heads,

seduce Yann Borin's hunter into letting them live in the charming folk tale

"Robam Tunsaong."

The two threads of Cambodian dance come together enchantingly in the second

half of the evening, when the company performs an excerpt from "Reamker," the

Cambodian version of the Hindu epic "Ramayana." Scratching and scampering about

the stage in his dazzling white monkey costume, Soeur Thavarak plays the

beloved monkey general Hanuman, who helps the hero, danced by the lovely Khieu

Sotheavy, recover his (her?) kidnapped bride, Sam Sathya. In the gorgeous

climax, the lights dim and Sam is encircled by flickering candles. Forget that

she's agreed to trial by fire to prove she's been faithful, and just let

yourself succumb to the incomparable beauty.