COLONIALISM & KHMER DANCE IN THE GLOBAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Before I progress in the linear account of history, it is important to discuss the effects of the relationship between colonialism and Khmer dance. For, whether peacefully or violently, willingly or by force, an exchange of ideas and approaches is inevitable when different people and groups meet. Even in a most seemingly top-down relationship, there is a movement that goes back and forth. So, instead of writing about French colonialism as solely giving, bringing modern education, railroads, and infrastructure—which is how I encountered it in literature as a ten year-old boy—let’s talk about what the French received and shared with the world.
Confronted with a foreign art form and culture, the French did what anyone would do. They understood it through their own lens, puzzle-piecing it into their ever-expanding worldviews. This is only natural of course, but it becomes problematic when that lens is chiseled and tinted by racism, violence, oppression, and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, in such a case—whether we mean it to or not—the things around us become a distorted reality that harms our communities and those of later generations.
In his day, for example, the French naturalist Henri Mouhot was credited as “discovering” Angkor Wat despite that it was already known to exist. Pilgrims, coming from throughout Southeast Asia and from as far away as Japan, continued to journey to the temple after the fall of Angkor into the modern era. And, even further, Portuguese missionaries were actually the first Europeans to visit the temple. They did so almost 300 years earlier, in the 1500s.
“Mouhot himself erroneously asserted that Angkor was the work of an earlier civilization than the Khmer. For although the very same civilization which built Angkor was alive right before his eyes, he considered [modern Khmer people] in a ‘state of barbarism.’”
The story that gets passed on then, is that the locals do not know who built the temples, that they tell him giants had built the temple overnight. This story which ironically hints at cultural continuity—Maya, a demon with the power of illusion, built Yudhishthira’s palace at Indraprastha in the Mahabharata, and Angkor came to be known by Khmer and Lao people as Indraprastha during the Middle Period—was used by the French to create a historical rupture and disconnection, serving to deprive Khmer people of our cultural and political agency and to assert colonial control. A National Geographic Magazine article published in 1928 makes this clear:
“[T]he culture [of Angkor] died and the men who had built it disappeared . . . It seems impossible that a culture such as that which built the pyramid of Angkor Vat could have perished without a word of its demise reaching the civilizations with which it must have been in constant touch. But such appears to have been the case . . . Two generations ago the modern world had never heard of Angkor . . . Even without second sight, one senses the presence here of the millions of [Khmer] who are gone. Once they stood out there in the paddy fields as these newly arrived Cambodians are standing . . . The third [theory for the disappearance of the Khmer people], which has the support of [George] Groslier, is that the slaves, who must have constituted a large portion of the population, if such works as Angkor Vat are to be taken as any indication, revolted and destroyed the intellectuals. And this seems reasonable enough. With the teachers gone, it would be natural enough for the remainder of the population to lapse into savagery, as the Khmer undoubtedly did . . . Who were these people?”
Contrary to such colonial sentiments and misinterpretations however, the demon-builder of Angkor Wat is precisely a symbol for cultural continuity as:
“The final hold of Theravada upon the whole Khmer thought is the cause of these linguistic [and cultural] upsets; it has not destroyed the Brahmanic inheritance, rather it has forced back many elements into the subconscious mind of the community. These elements, stripped of their ‘signifiants’ survived in latent form like an underground stream of ‘signifiés’, that art and texts, properly analysed, are capable of bringing to light.”
In a somewhat twisted fashion though, in their administration of Indochina, French powers created policies to render Cambodia a symbol of quaint tradition and romantic antiquity. This was unlike the approach to governing Vietnam, which was made to transform with all the semblances of modernity. Indeed, as David Chandler states, “fear of modernity runs through a good deal of French writing about colonial Cambodia, even though the French in another context perceived their role as one of transmitting modernity to the Khmer.”
French attitudes towards the colonies are further revealed by a saying of the time, which I heard recited by artists of TeAda Productions during their play Refugee Nation: “The Vietnamese plant the rice. The Cambodians watch the rice grow. The Lao people listen to it.” Such blatant racism and notions of cultural and ethnic superiority are further manifested in the “mixed Franco-Cambodian children who were abandoned by their fathers and then separated from their mothers by a colonial system that aimed to make them purely French.”
It is in this environment that the art of Khmer classical dance was revealed to the world beyond Southeast Asia. Through live performances, films, photographs, and postcards, the art form began to enter into the global consciousness. A few of the people who would interact with the artistic tradition and dancers themselves would be some key figures in modern art and performance.
As mentioned earlier, the 1906 tour to the Colonial Exhibition in Marseilles and Paris left a profound effect on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The watercolors he created were described by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as:
“Capturing in the most remarkable way, that most uncapturable thing: dance . . . [The watercolors are like the] pages of an herbarium, one is tempted to say, as one passes from one to the next. Flowers have been collected here and, gently dried, their unconscious gestures have drawn into themselves to assume a final intensity which contains, as though in a symbol, their former existence entire.”
During that same tour, Bois mentions that Loie Fuller, a "great and likable artist" who pioneered dance and lighting techniques during her day, "desperately wanted to exhibit some of the [Khmer dancers] under the aegis of her famous name." Furthermore, the experimental theater director Antonin Artaud would later see Khmer dancers in 1922 and Balinese dancers later in 1931, infusing European theater with ideas of ritualism and ceremony, and “open[ing] the way to the conception of the artistic mission” and giving theater “the task of being the means to salvation.”
In Cambodia, foreign-trained dancers sought study with dance masters inside and outside of the palace. Zenia Xarina, who studied dance throughout Asia and with Princess Say Sangvann, published a book that detailed her training and experiences. Often, she created costumes inspired by the dance forms she studied and posed for photos. Ted Shawn, considered the father of modern dance in America, and his then wife Ruth St. Denis saw the dancers of King Sisowath in the palace. The prior described what he saw in his book Gods Who Dance: “The Cambodian [dance form], while developed from the Siamese, is a more perfect expression of the style and most worthwhile to see.” The dance pioneer then continues:
“[T]he orchestra gave the cue for the entrance of the dancers, and before we realized what was happening, the floor was filled with dancers. They were like live jewels frosted with gold. Vibrant, rich and satisfying color, the fire of priceless jewels, the overpowering scent of jasmine and champak blossoms which hung in tassels from their crowns, and were woven into bracelets for their arms. Twenty exquisitely beautiful girls, half of them dressed as princesses and half as princes, danced in two long lines down the floor. As I watched, I realized why no words, written or spoken could ever recreate this scene, for a simultaneous attack was made through all the senses at once—even the moving picture, perfectly synchronized with the perfectly recorded music, would still be unable to give the caress of the tropic breeze which bore the heavy-scented perfumes of musk and jasmine . . . The exceptional qualities, some of them positively unique, of this dancing, lie in the bodily positions and the use of the arms and hands, the legs always in plié, sometimes slight, sometimes deep, the feet well turned out, and the toes curling up especially in walking or running. The head has an almost motionless posture which is induced by heaviness of the crown. It would come off or be disarranged by any violent movements of the head. The running and walking is done by sliding the feet along the ground swiftly and keeping the upper part of the body perfectly tranquil, giving the impression of floating on the water. When a position similar to a ballet arabesque is taken [deav], it breaks every ballet rule; the toe is turned up, the knee is bent to the limit, the standing knee is bent, and yet there is a great sense of flight. The real charm, the real essence of this dancing eludes description; the color, gold and jewels of the costume, the perfume of the jasmine blossoms they wear, borne on the warm breezes of the tropic night, the hypnotic rhythm of the gongs and wooden strikers, the fragile beauty of the dancers, the serpent-supple arms and hands, all combined cannot contain the secret of their power. There is a dignity accumulated through hundreds and hundreds of years, an aristocracy bred by countless generations of court life and adherence to strict and sacred traditions, a tragic evanescence as of a flower which blossoms only for one night, to fade at dawn. Even all of these points when thoroughly considered and added to the sum total do not explain the magic quality of these living goddesses.”
Ted Shawn had, of course, written this at a time of Thai political eminence in which they mapped territory, amplified their nationalist strategies, and imitated and adopted the imperialist rhetoric of European colonial powers. So although we cannot argue with his opinion and artistic sensibilities of which dance is more refined, evidence is contrary to his understanding of the historical origins of the art form. Needless to say, the two dancers and their Denishawn dance company in Los Angeles drew from Khmer dance and other forms from around the world, incorporating the techniques of the traditions they encountered into their own movement vocabulary. Jane Sherman, one of their dancers, described this:
“A forerunner of the technical warm-ups now used in many modern dance schools, [was an exercise that] started with feet placed far apart and pressed flat on the floor. With a slow swinging of the body into ever-increasing circles, came head, shoulder, and torso rolls, the arms sweeping from the floor to the ceiling. After a relaxed run around the circumference of the studio, we ended in a back fall . . . we might then sit down to practice Javanese arm movements, do hand stretches to force our Western fingers backward into some semblance of Cambodian flexibility.”
Just as Zenia Xarina had done, the artists created costumes and dances made to resemble and, even further, represent the traditions from which they drew inspiration.
Ted Shawn in The Abduction of Sita. Photo by Lou Goodale Bigelow, courtesy of New York Public Library.
In 1936, the American horror film Revolt of the Zombies was released. Set at the temple of Angkor Wat, it detailed the story of an international expedition seeking to find and destroy the secrets of zombification (because, in the movie, the temples of Angkor had been built by zombies). In the film, Sana Rayya—originally born Sana Margaret Ray of Springfield, Kentucky—is seen portraying “a traditional wedding dance of the Khmer.” Costumed in an interpretation of an apsara crown and clothes reminiscent of Burmese aesthetics, she reinterprets the dance form with a sexualized exoticism. She objectifies the dancing Khmer female body as she performs something so far from what she was made to represent.
Mirroring this sentiment, an adventure film condescendingly relays this story as it portrays dancers at Angkor:
“Being guests of the king, we were permitted to see the royal Cambodian dancers. We notice on the left an outstanding figure wearing a monkey mask, representing the prince of the apes. The dance portrays princesses dancing for him and all the actions center on the figure wearing the monkey mask. The extraordinary motif astounded us! The unbelievable suggestion of apes sweeping power over human beings was unheard of outside of this part of the world and dates back to ancient times.”
Looking at the footage however, the level of skill and refinement reflected in the dancing and costumes reveal that they are actually an amateur provincial troupe. And the so-called “monkey” is actually a demon character. Another film of the time compounds to the layer of misunderstanding in its description of the classical dance technique of Khmer people:
“Their dance—a series of postures. Their marched step is closely patterned after the gait of an elephant. Observe how these mice of humanity are able to simulate the ponderous caution of the elephant.”
This BAM bulletin reads “Mara in a Characteristic Cambodian Attitude.” Courtesy of the BAM Hamm Archives.
Mara von Sellheim, who studied classical dance in the Khmer palace, was instrumental in the realization of the musical film, The King and I (1951). After conducting research by reading Raymond Cogniat’s Danses d’Indochine and George Bois’s Les Danseuses Cambogiennes en France, Jerome Robbins worked with the dancer to “achieve an authentic replication of the dance form . . . to teach his dancers a considerable amount of Cambodian court dance vocabulary.” As a result, “[i]t was the Cambodian classical dance form that Robbins would integrate into his choreography” and Khmer artistry, like the textile gifted to President Pierce, entered into the foreign consciousness as a symbol of Thainess once again.
Due to the ability to reproduce and disseminate film in an increasingly media-driven culture—as well as the popularity of The King and I itself—the work would contribute to contemporary popular misunderstandings of the entire Khmer dance tradition as originating in Thailand (inept scholarship, tourism, and politics also plays a role, which we will talk about later). This is so much the case that a journalist would write almost forty years later in the New York Times:
“In the narrative works [of Khmer classical dance] the stage is populated by gods, goddesses, monkeys, demons and clowns. Westerners whose initial image of Southeast Asian dance was formed by the Thai court dance sequence in Jerome Robbins's choreography for ‘The King and I’ will notice similarities in the Cambodians' high golden crowns, the spiraling hand gestures and the sustained, almost liquid flow of the dance.”
Mara presented her own program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1953. Titled Mara and her Cambodian Ballet, it was seen by the later to be iconic artist Andy Warhol, who created three drawings inspired by the show.
Given all of this, it is clear to see the ways in which colonialism spread an awareness of Khmer classical dance in our modern world. Through books, films, paintings, and more, artists of Europe and America sought to capture and reinterpret the ancient art form for their own audiences. Often times, the images and performances were in fact a hodge-podge of cultures and art forms, completely new creations reflecting European and American imaginations of the Orient. In its most extreme form, these depictions framed the art form as reflecting an uncivilized, savage, animal, and undead race of sexualized others. Occasionally however, like the case of Rodin’s watercolors and Robbins’s choreography—within the limits of time and access and cultural contexts—they were careful studies of the dance form that reflected individual artistic sensibilities. Ted Shawn, for example, wrote:
“Tagore cried in one of his poems, ‘Who can strain the blue from the sky?’ How can I then, strain from these dances of ancient Khmer their adorable perfume, color and rhythm and bring them home to America? And yet, while we never could duplicate or recreate this dance art exactly, it has many tangible principles which are universal in their application, and thus should be learned and used. If the dancing in any one country is truly great, it must have been founded on principles which are true everywhere, and thus the study of these principles is of value to every country. In the study of the dances of every nation and race of the world, I am never concerned with imitation, but with surprising the secret source of their charm and beauty, that I, too, may tap that source, and let the divine essence flow through me, perhaps in new forms, to the world.”
Among others, the influential Martha Graham, occasionally termed the “Picasso of Dance,” studied with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at their school in Los Angeles. She and her company in turn helped to “develop many famous dancers and choreographers of the [twentieth] and [twenty-first] centuries including Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor." So, just as colonialism pulled from world culture to give rise to Primitivism in modern visual art—and the subsequent genres influenced by it such as Picasso’s Cubism—Khmer artistic sensibilities and other artistic traditions would contribute to the beginnings of contemporary dance and art as we know it.
This is important to remember, especially given the way that we separate, categorize, and place borders on what is traditional art and what is contemporary art, and therefore which has more value and relevance and funding in our world today. This process of defining and othering is in fact a by-product of colonial powers mapping and cataloguing peoples and territories. Taking after Roland Meyer’s Saramani: Danseuse Khmer published in 1919 however, which details the love between a Frenchman and a Khmer court dancer, the colonial affair was not made to last. Months before Mara performed her December 1953 program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cambodia gained its independence from France.
Saramani, 1919 edition, Portail, Saigon - Scan by Kent Davis, DatAsia Press.
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