Mosaic is ecstatic for its partnership with Beautiful Dark–a collaborative dance, music and spoken word piece that highlights the impacts of colorism particularly on South and Southeast Asian cultures but also on a global scale–premiering this coming May! In anticipation, we take the time to introduce you to the artists behind the craft and the origins of this production.

Charya Burt is an acclaimed master dancer, choreographer, vocalist and teacher of Classical Cambodian dance. She trained extensively in Cambodia under the few surviving dance masters, eventually joining the esteemed dance faculty at Cambodia’s Royal University of Fine Arts before moving to the United States. Since then, she has continued the legacy of artistic Cambodian expression by creating original, innovative performances that masterfully blend the cultural history of Cambodian dance while also renewing the art form to honor and preserve her cultural roots and traditions. Charya has received the famed Isadora Duncan award for Individual Performance for her last original masterpiece, The Rebirth of Apsara: Artistic Lineage, Cultural Resilience and the Resurrection of Cambodian Arts from the Ashes of Genocide as a response to her experiences through the Khmer Rouge genocide and the resiliency of her people to preserve their heritage despite immense loss.

Growing up in Cambodia, Charya herself was all too familiar with the cultural and social impacts of colorism. As a young girl, she would be referred to by the darkness of her skin with negative implications, creating a hyper awareness around something no young girl should have to fixate on. As a result, she found herself using various fairness creams to lighten her skin, trying to save herself from the social and economic hardships that those with darker skin tones have to face as a result of colorism.

As a young girl in Cambodia, Charya would often be told, “dark skin girls have to prove more.” (C. Burt, personal communication, March 14th 2024)

Her decision to create Beautiful Dark emerged from her own experiences growing up in Cambodia and being encouraged to do whatever was needed to align with whiteness, but also that of what she observed when traveling back home as an adult–realizing that her experiences were far from isolated events unique only to her.

“When I begin traveling back to Cambodia, I see the people I work with, the young dancers, all of a sudden look lighter than they did even six months ago. How their dark brown skin becomes lighter and whiter over time, and that’s very popular in Cambodia. For me to realize that this is a trend, a social phenomenon happening, I begin my own research to create Beautiful Dark.
Going to the markets where a variety of fairness and lightening creams are being sold, and very popular, people use them to change their dark skin tones. Even peeling creams, to peel off layers of skin to reveal lighter skin, that can cause cancer and has become a health issue. I thought, wait a minute, this has become a danger. This needs to be talked about. We need to bring awareness to this issue.” (C. Burt, personal communication, March 14th 2024)

In partnership with Mosaic America, Charya Burt created her newest collaborative music, dance and written word performance, Beautiful Dark, to challenge the colorism embedded into her culture and bring awareness to the harm it does on both an individual and sociocultural level–in Cambodian communities as well as on a global scale. Using the medium of dance and theatre to express the absurdity of our collective obsession with fairness, Charya uses her personal experience in Cambodia to challenge the far reaching global impacts of colorism and our ingrained perceptions on beauty. In an effort to mitigate sensitivity and avoid brand recognition, she creates her own version of a fairness cream–“Pure White”– to mimic the experiences she had as a young girl in the performance through traditional Cambodian dance expression.

By focusing on the question of “what if the whole world was just pure white?” and taking the obsession with fairness creams to the extreme, Charya implements farcicality to challenge the truly absurd notion that whiteness equates to greatness. By bringing our attention to cultural identity and embracing authenticity through our diversity, Charya implores us to dismantle the social expectations to align with whiteness and embrace ourselves as we naturally are. Despite what we are conditioned to believe in a world infiltrated with colorism, Charya urges us to reject the notion we have to change ourselves to be beautiful, that allowing ourselves to be who we genuinely are is enough–and that this is crucial for social advancement.

Beautiful Dark premieres May 18th, 2024 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.