CONTEMPORARY RECONSTRUCTIONS OF ANGKOR

One day in 2008, I tagged along with Neak Kru Sophiline to Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia.  She and select members of her company were to rehearse with esteemed composer Chinary Ung, and I was to visit Angkor for the first time.  Stopping by to say hello to the dancers in their room however, I walked into a moment of uncomfortable tension.  The television displayed images of Thai soldiers who had encroached into Khmer territory, claiming that the temple of Preah Vihear belonged to Thailand.  A dancer, with whom I had conversations earlier about Khmer and Thai relations—myself advocating for peace—looked to me from her place on the floor and asked, “How can you ask us not to hate them?  They try to steal everything from us.”[419]

This battle for the temple is actually a centuries-long battle for the legacy of Angkor.  And, in that, it is a battle for cultural superiority, political might, and economic prosperity as well.  Even as far away as India, this intention is revealed by plans for a replica of Angkor Wat that is larger than the original, and by a mystic who claimed the temple was constructed in India and shipped piece by piece to Cambodia.  Ownership is asserted even further by others, who claim that ancient Khmers were actually of African descent.

Back to Southeast Asia however, there are Thai nationalists who claim that their ancestors completely subsumed, or maybe even destroyed, that lineage and culture, that in fact Khmer traditions today are actually Thai in origin.  Some would agree, arguing that the Khmer claim for historical and cultural continuity to Angkor is actually a construction of French colonialism.  Hideo Sasagawa, for example, has written: “Discourse which regarded the Cambodian court dance as the Angkorean ‘tradition’ was also invented under such a fluctuation of colonial encounters.”[420]

In actuality though, the temples and the arts and customs associated with them always held political value beyond their religious and spiritual functions.  This was the case during their day and before the presence of European colonial powers in the region.  Beyond being a religious monument, structures such as Angkor Wat were powerful manifestations of the kings’ might and legitimacy.[421]  The royal family, as patrons of the source of rain and fertility for which the temples were an expression, legitimized their reign through the dancing bodies of artists serving the same function.

For another example of the manifold value accorded to the temples throughout history, one predating French colonialism in Cambodia and therefore disproving Hideo Sasagawa’s assumptions, let us look at this example from 1860 provided by Thai scholar Charnvit Kasetsiri:

“King Rama IV, or King Mongkut (r. 1851-1868), for instance, ordered a Khmer stone temple disassembled and reconstructed on Thai soil, but ‘Phra Suphanphisan, after a trip to the ancient Khmer capital at Angkor, informed the King that all the stone temples were too enormous to be taken apart and transported to Siam.  Hearing this, the King ordered that Prasat Ta Prohm, a relatively smaller temple, be relocated instead.  Four groups of 500 men each were dispatched . . . to deconstruct the prasat on the ninth day of the sixth lunar month’ . . . [T]he attempt to move the temple structure failed when ‘some 300 Khmers came out of the forest and attacked the men who had come to disassemble the temple, killing Phra Suphanphisan, Phra Wang and one of Phra Suphanphisan’s sons.  Phra Mahatthai was stabbed, and Phra Yokkrabat was injured.  The phrai commoners, however, escaped injury by fleeing into the forest.’”[422]

 

This event corroborated by Khmer oral stories—instead of Thai they were “Chinese Khmer”—reflects the guerrilla warfare with which loosely organized Khmer forces at times “harass[ed] and defeat[ed] a foreign expeditionary force.”[423]  Importantly however, we must ask ourselves why 300 “phrai commoners,” without any direction from the Khmer court, come to defend the temple?  Certainly they must have felt a cultural and religious affinity for, as well as a sense of stewardship over Prasat Ta Prohm to attack a force almost seven times their size.  David Chandler, for example, notes, “When the Angkor complex was ‘discovered’ by French missionaries and explorers in the 1850s, Angkor Wat contained a prosperous Buddhist monastery inside its walls, tended by several hundred hereditary slaves.”[424]  Indeed, “researchers found that later in Angkor Wat's history—after it had been converted to a Buddhist temple—the site was turned into a military fortification with wooden structures being built to defend the moated site.”[425]

 

Nonetheless, this event taking place forty-seven years before 1907, in which Sasagawa claims that the French began politicizing Angkor—and from which Khmers adopted our nationalist attitudes—unhinges his “post/colonial” critiques of Khmer nationalism.  In fact, there were two faces to French colonialism: one which celebrated the living Angkorean legacy in Cambodia for their own power and one of racist bigotry that could not associate Khmer people with the temples and all they represented.  Scholarship and voices that purport Khmer classical dance was wholly imported in the nineteenth century or is disconnected to its Angkorean roots is in line with the latter. 

 

Kasetsiri, possessing a more sensitive awareness, continues with King Mongkut’s story:

 

“It was obvious that the Khmer were angered by the theft of their property and responded violently.  The incident convinced King Mongkut to abandon the plan to ‘disassemble’ the prasat and instead to construct a small model of the Angkor Wat temple complex.  ‘Craftsmen constructed a model of Angkor Wat and installed it at Wat Phra Sri Ratanasasadaram (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), where it remains to this very day.’”[426]

Model of Angkor Wat at Thailand’s Grand Palace in Bangkok.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

In fact King Ang Chan’s renovation of Angkor Wat in the sixteenth century, his commissioning of a giant reclining Buddha at Phnom Kulen where Angkor came to life in 802 CE, all point to a history of cultural continuity in Cambodia after the fall of Angkor.  As further proof of this, Penny Edwards also notes:

 

“The spiritual power of the city of Angkor as the seat of the Khmer Empire was progressively developed through ritual, art, and literature from the ninth to thirteenth centuries.  In a bid to retain this power, and to perpetuate their divinity and sovereignty, Khmer royalty took sacred statuary with them as they moved southward to escape Siam’s reach, transplanting fragments of Angkor to their new capitals at Longvek and, subsequently, Oudong.  Its power sustained by statuary and story, Angkor would reverberate at the heart of Khmer culture even as the Khmer Empire splintered and fragmented in the shadow of Siam, Vietnam, and the power plays of rival royal factions . . . From the Siamese victory until the sixteenth century, when Theravadan Buddhists led a movement to ‘reappropriate ancient space’ through the conceptual and physical revitalization of the Angkor heritage, artists and laity had perpetuated remembrance of Angkor in works of architecture, art, and literature.  In the late sixteenth century that reappropriation took the form of renovation.  ‘The King restored the walls of the building, stone by stone, [and] rebuilt its roof’ reads a 1579 inscription at Angkor Vat.  The harmonization of that Brahmanic heritage and Theravadan ideology is reflected in Lpoek Nokor (The construction of Angkor).  Variously dated 1598 and 1620 and attributed to Neak Pang, the poem unfolds the Khmer version of the Ramayana (Reamker) through vivid poetic images describing the bas-reliefs at Angkor Vat.  The early seventeenth century also saw the sculpting of fresh bas-reliefs on the north-facing wall in the eastern wing of Angkor Vat.  Sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century inscriptions by Khmer royalty on the temple testify to the lasting identification of Khmer queens and kings with Angkor, and to its emerging significance as a site of Buddhist ritual.”[427]

 

Thus historical evidence reveals that Khmer people—elite and humble alike—have always maintained a connection to the temples and all that they represent.  Royalty, in order to stay connected to the legacy of Angkor, would have required the execution of established court rituals of which dance, music, and prayer were integral.  “Indeed, as cultural historian Ashley Thompson has suggested, the physical abandonment of the temple city might even be said to have magnified the mystical power and regional orbit of Angkor as a cultural and political concept.”[428]

 

With all of this in mind, let us now look at contemporary reconstructions of Angkor and the impetuses from which they take life.

Dancers of the Royal University of Fine Arts perform Robam Apsara.  Source: YouTube.

I start with this clip, of Robam Apsara, to situate us in the linear progression of history once more.  The video represents what happened after the post-Khmer Rouge period of Khmer dance: the royalty returned, the lyrics returned to as they were, and the dancers are now wearing the same color schemes in the costumes as those before the genocide.  Furthermore, Ouk Solichumnith, dressed in a white skirt and dancing as Mera, was noted by Neak Kru Sophiline to be “the last student of Chea Samy”[429] (although there were younger ones such as Hun Pen and Chey Chankethya, who worked with the old master in their very earliest years).[430]

 

There is nothing political about this dance in the lyrics or the dancing itself but, as I have mentioned earlier, it was created at a moment in which Cambodia sought to redefine itself on the international stage of culture and politics.  There are some such as Jukka O. Miettinen, however, who would argue that:

“The Apsara Dance is an example of how historical sources can be employed in creating new works, in this case serving nationalism.  The creation myth of the Cambodian nation is danced in a pure Thai-influenced classical Cambodia[n] dance style, while the crowns and ornaments, copied from the reliefs of Angkor.”[431]

Except for the fact that sculptural evidence from Angkor, shown in prior sections of this writing, already prove a direct relationship between the movement technique and aesthetics of Khmer dance today and that of the Angkor era.  Note the following relief details from Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat, and Preah Ko as further proof of this.  The arched backs, curved fingers, curled toes, arm angles, bent knees, props, deav—both standing on one leg and seated on the ground—and energetic quality all have a direct relationship to Khmer dance today.  As mentioned before, any differences in this can be associated with the process of translating a three-dimensional art form into a mostly two-dimensional surface and in the fact that things do in fact evolve over time.  When we look at the images closely however, we realize that Khmer technical and aesthetic values in movement—that which defines dance—have not changed much, if at all, through the centuries.

Siva Nataraja, or Shiva King of Dance, at Banteay Srei (tenth century CE), his pose synonymous with male characters today.  Courtesy of Johann Reinhart Zeiger, Angkorguide.net.

Notice the charioteer in this relief detail from Angkor Wat.  His seated pose, arched back, arm angles, and energetic quality are synonymous with dancers today.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Soldiers in combat in the Battle of Kurukshetra at Angkor Wat.  Their sense of leveling and opposition can still be seen in Khmer and Thai dance today.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Soldiers in combat in the Battle of Kurukshetra at Angkor Wat.  The entangling legs can still be seen in Khmer and Thai dances today.  Notice their arm angles.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The Battle of Langka at Angkor Wat.  The gesture of grabbing an elongated leg during fight can still be seen in Khmer dances such as the Reamker and Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, and as well as the Thai Ramakian today.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Detail of a male dancer in combat pose at Angkor Wat.  Notice his curled toes, arched back, bent knees, curved fingers, and arm angles—still the standard in Khmer dance today.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Detail of male dancer in pose at Angkor Wat.  The way he holds his club is still used today.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Male dancers in standing deav at Preah Ko.  Ninth century.  Image: Sot Sovandy and Prumsodun Ok.

Male dancers in seated deav at Preah Ko.  Ninth century.  What will happen when these images succumb to nature and time?  Image: Sot Sovandy and Prumsodun Ok.

It is difficult to take Miettinen’s idea of a “pure Thai-influenced classical Cambodia[n] dance” seriously, especially given the vague bias with which he guesses about the origins of Thai dance:

“The present Thai classical dance (natasin) probably developed during the Ayutthaya period (1350–1767), although very little is known about the process.  Its roots can be deciphered by using the early dance images of the region . . . as archaeological source material . . . One source may be the Mon tradition, depicted in the few surviving Mon reliefs.  One possible transmission route for this clearly Indian-influenced dance technique could also have been South Thailand with its connections with Sri Lanka and the Srivijaya Empire.  There may also be the possibility that the dance tradition was brought from India direct to the regions of Thailand by Indian Brahman gurus . . . This last possibility is supported by the fact that many dance-related key terms still used in the Thai language, such as natasin (classical dance) and kru (guru), stem from Sanskrit and are related to India’s Natyashastra dance and theatre manual (Natasatra in Thai).”[432]

 

In some cases writers, drawing upon the nationalist historiography of a more economically, politically, and academically robust country, one that is more popular in the global consciousness due to stronger tourism and media industries, recycle nationalist myths that serve to delete the contributions and autonomy of certain peoples and cultures.  Contrary to Miettinen’s assertions however, Thai scholar Wilaiwan Khanittanan has already established that Sanskrit and Prakrit words enter Thai vocabulary by way of Khmer.  Further, Kasetsiri adds:

 

“This lack of understanding is reflected in the thinking of a considerable number of educated Thais and members of the ruling class, who distinguish between the Khom and the Khmer, considering them to be two separate ethnic groups.  They assert that it was the Khom, not the Khmer, who built the majestic temple complexes at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and who founded one of the world’s truly magnificent ancient empires.  They further claim that Khmer culture, for instance its various forms of masked dance drama, is merely a ‘derivative’ of Thai culture.  (This is despite the fact that the word ‘Khom’ is derived from the old Thai ‘Khmer krom,’ meaning ‘lowland Khmer.’  In spoken Thai, ‘Khmer’ was gradually dropped, leaving only ‘krom,’ which over time became, first, ‘klom’ or ‘kalom,’ and then eventually ‘Khom.’) . . . Those elements of Thai culture which are generally considered to have originated in India, such as Buddhism, architecture, artistic designs, and even a significant portion of the Thai lexicon, did not enter Thailand directly from India.  Rather, they were all second-hand transmissions, so to speak, having first passed through the Sri Lankans (including the Tamil), the Mon, or the Khmer.  Even the concept of divine kingship (devaraja) and much of the special vocabulary associated with the royal court were, as M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, a noted intellectual and former Thai prime minister, said, ‘derived from Cambodia.’”[433]

 

The “old Thai ‘Khmer krom’” is actually just plain Khmer meaning “lowland Khmer.”  It is still in use by Khmer people today to refer to Khmers in the Mekong Delta and it was used by Khmers, Thais, and Mons living beyond the Khorat Plateau to refer to those living in central Khmer lands.  Linguistic cases in point, the Sanskrit-derived Khmer word nokor (city) has become nakhon in Thai.  Khmer, in Thai, is pronounced khamenDaeur, to walk in Khmer, is deurn in Thai.  Ream Eyso, which actually has a silent “ro” or “r” sound in its Khmer spelling, becomes Ramasun.  In Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso itself, Khmers sing the phrase “chhvat chhveal” and “chhveal chhvat” while Thais sing “chhawean chhawat.”  Given the way that chhveal has been translated to chhawean, it is not inaccurate to say that the Khmer word and art form khaol, sometimes romanized as “khol,” is the root for the Thai word and art form khon.  This is supported by the fact that the “Siamese Ramayana grew out of the Old Khmer tradition, in its content and title,” as the Khmer Reamker is Ramakian in Thai.[434]  Further historical evidence—from inscriptions referencing male dancers such as King Yasovarmann I and Vasudeva, and iconographic evidence at temples such as Angkor Wat and Bakong (which solely depicts male dancers)—points to this.  In fact, in the latter stages of my research, I found that Saveros Pou had already noted the historical development of khon from khaol

 

“Villagers, young and old, in their simplicity, were satisfied that they had attended and appreciated ‘a play of monkeys’ (in Khmer, lkhon khol), hence the widespread popularity of this name in the entire Cambodian community and even beyond Cambodia’s border (it occurs in Siamese: khon /khoon/) . . . Any final /-r/ or /-l/ in Khmer loanwords became /-n/ in Siamese.  It must be further noted that the initial sense of ‘monkey’ was not perceived by the Siamese, or was lost when they borrowed the word, whilst Khmer people keep using khol /khaol/ (a type of tall, black monkey), and deriving therefrom the sense of ‘to be frivolous, to burlesque.’”[435]

  

That said, let us now look at two examples of Thai constructions of Angkor.

Rabam Lopburi.  Source: YouTube.

This dance, titled Rabam Lopburi, is inspired by iconography from the Khmer temple of Lavo.  Dressed in costumes to mimic the apsara and yogini of the relief carvings, the dancers almost always seem to face the camera, striking frontal poses that mirror the frontal manner in which we see relief carvings.  Their arms and legs rarely stretch towards the back or to the front of the body, creating a flatness contrary to the inherent expressive possibilities of dance.  The work thus fabricates “Khmer dance” and the “Khmerness” it represents as static, non-dynamic, and uncultured for a Thai public.  And, from its flat movement and costuming to its music, Rabam Lopburi was created to divorce Thai khon and lakhon nai from their Khmer roots, so as to create an image of pure “Thainess” for an increasingly nationalist state. 

 

Fast-forward decades later, this same dance would get a makeover in costuming under the direction of Peeramon Chomdhavat.  Some choreography has changed as well, incorporating movements and poses derived from certain Indian classical dance forms such as odissi and bharatanatyam.  The three-point curving in the body characteristic of odissi is not something seen in Khmer iconography of the Angkor era however (nor is it seen in Javanese bedhaya to which some artists and scholars say Khmer dance is historically connected).  Rather this attempt to Indianize the Thai past—of which the Khmer city of Lavo was absorbed into, of which even foreigners such as Miettinen succumb and contribute to—serve the function of tracing “Thainess” to an India it never directly inherited its culture from.  All the while, as before, it works to hide Khmer cultural roots from Thai classical arts, even despite the fact that they are firmly grounded in Angkorean traditions.

 

It is also very important to note how none of these dances feature the use of language.  This is very likely because an accurate construction of Lavo dance would, in some way, require the use of Khmer.  More significantly however, it reflects faulty contemporary perceptions of the past (and of Khmer people) as being illiterate, backwards, and primitive.  James R. Brandon, for example, has noted:

 

“Written evidence for shadow play and masked dance [both forms draw generously on the Reamker and Ramakian for content] is completely lacking.  This leads some scholars to feel that narrative drama was not highly developed during the Angkor period . . . It is possible that the common dramatic repertoire of Khmer and Thai performance largely evolved in the more secular environment of Thai courts after Angkor’s decline beginning in 1431.”[436]

 

First off, Saveros Pou has already mentioned inscriptions of puppets being offered during the time of Angkor.[437]  Angkor Wat itself is a shadow puppet, with “[s]hadows in the shape of the central towers . . . produced by the late-afternoon sun shining through carved pillars in the windows of the galleries.”[438]  This astute study of and playing with light should come as no surprise, since the temple was an observatory precisely constructed with spiritual and scientific measurements so as to align with the stars, so that the sun rose directly above the central tower during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.[439]  

 

Secondly, inscriptions also mention a female dancer named Samarasena (whose name means "soldier in the battlefield").  Pou explains that the name was used to "speak of a dancer; she likely performed as a warrior."[440]  This name creates a direct association with dance and drama then, giving new life and vitality to scenes from the Reamker, Mahabharata, and more depicted on Angkorean temple walls.

 

Thirdly, Trudy Jacobsen has already expressed the problems of solely relying on written sources to construct history.  She notes how King Ang Duong and his descendants rewrote the Khmer court chronicles.  The Thai court chronicles, mirroring this process, were rewritten and revised to ensure the legitimacy of the Bangkok dynasty after the fall of Ayutthaya.[441]  They include fictitious events, such as the phithi pathomkam which alleges King Naresuan beheaded a Khmer king and washed his feet with the blood.[442]  Unreliability of written sources, and the error of writers who depend solely on them, is precisely explained by Michael Wright in the context of the Ram Kamhaeng stele:

 

“Locally, during the absolute monarchy history was the exclusive possession of the royal family.  There was no possibility of outside questioning or interpretation . . . Internationally, great scholars like George Coedes were employees of the absolute monarchy and so had no reason to cast doubts upon the monarchy’s key document.  Later, during the Cold War, Western scholars were required to legitimize the dictators, not question the symbolism that appeared to lend them legitimacy.”[443]

 

Finally, notice Brandon’s suggestion that drama was somehow more dynamic in a “secular environment.”  Of course, secular artistic and dance contexts existed and intersected with religious ones at Angkor.  It is inaccurate to suppose that the people of Angkor were all prayer, that people did not have fun or experience pain or hope or joy just as those before and after them all over the world had and do.  His idea of Angkorean dance as non-literary and non-dramatic reflects a modern bias and feeling of superiority more than anything, reflects a linear flattening of the past based on a worldview shaped by notions and imaginings of industrial revolution, progress, and development.  The latter word is, at times, nothing more than an expression of neo-imperialism.

Shadows taking the shape of Angkor Wat’s central towers in the morning light.  Photo: Laurel Jenkins.

That said, the opposite of Brandon’s assumption is true for Cambodia.  All over the temples of Angkor, story, narrative, and drama took the form of images in temple reliefs.  Inspired by the dance and literature of the time, and like the dance and literature of the time, they were artistic expressions meant to channel, propitiate, please, mirror, and influence the gods.  The more beautiful, charged, precise, and dynamic a work of art was, the more spiritual power and efficacy it was imbued with and believed to carry.  Indeed the gods and ancestors were given the best of offerings, including the most beautiful human beings, choreographies, lyrics, and melodies with which to take life in and dance through.  This is so much the case that today, Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is the most charged, polished, and dynamic dramatic work of the canon—very much due to its spiritual significance and non-secular nature, one with agricultural, social, and political consequences in the Khmer conception.

 

Therefore, it is much more accurate and insightful to take into account the words of Ian Mabbet and David Chandler in order to understand the natural intersection of Khmer art, dance, ritual, and spirituality:

 

“For Khmers of old, the contents of the world we inhabit are but blurred and imperfect imitations of archetypes which exist in eternity, pure and uncontaminated.  Thus, heavenly forms can be realized on earth by perfect actions and perfect constructions . . . Their iconography is meticulous, for it is the attributes of the gods which, created on earth, make their presence real.  The rules for the sculptor are not really a separate subject of study outside religion; they are religion in practice – the carving of a correctly formed image is a sacramental act . . . All these elements of religious art were familiar to the craftsmen who made the monuments of Angkor . . . The culture was like that of other parts of the world at the same time, notably medieval Europe, where the craftsmen who worked on such monuments as the Cathedral of Chartres were just as much concerned to embody divine powers in stone according to a meticulous iconography.  Their symbols were not for them, as symbols in modern culture, objects that merely pointed to other objects not present.  They were objects which, by taking the form of the thing symbolized, made that thing real and present.  What was symbolized in the art and architecture of Angkor was an invisible order whose existence patterned and made comprehensible the world in which people lived.  A craftsman, then, was not just a man with a chisel: he was a priest, thaumaturge, psychopomp, nuclear scientist.”[444]  

Rabam Lopburi, with new costumes by Peeramon Chomdhavat.  Source: YouTube.

That said, the attempt to delete Khmerness becomes ever more obvious when the same company performs a so-called “Ayudhaya Dance.”  The dance uses the modern phiphat orchestra and classically inspired movements to trace Thai identity and nationhood to a homogeneous Thai Ayutthaya, one that is supposedly the source of Thai classical art and culture today.  We all, however, know otherwise as Kasetsiri makes clear:

 

“[T]he respect and admiration for anything Khmer also characterized the Ayutthaya period from the mid-fourteenth century onward.  Interestingly, the flourishing of Khmer art and culture at the Thai court was the result of war, a war in which the victors adopted elements of the superior civilization of the losing side.”[445]

 

Furthermore, Peter Vail notes:

 

“Tangible evidence for Siam’s Khmer political ancestry abounds, from the diglossic Ratchasap used with royalty, and Siamese court dances based conspicuously on Khmer styles, to the detailed model of Angkor Wat proudly displayed at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.  But Thailand’s historical descent from the Khmer empire is rarely explicitly admitted in national discourse.  Heavy-handed nationalistic propaganda from the 1920s through the 1960s effaced much of Siam/Thailand’s historical past . . .The tendency in such nationalist discourse has been either to appropriate Khmer culture and cultural artifacts as Thai, or at least to alienate them from their Khmer roots.”[446]

 

If these dances were made out of a lack of historical awareness, it is one thing.  This can hopefully be countered through constructive dialogue.  If they were made with full awareness and intention however—like the Thaification policies my father first told me about as a boy, which prohibited people from learning, writing, or speaking Khmer in Thailand and “ordered Northern Khmer villagers to burn Khmer language materials”[447]—they amount to nothing less than ethnocide.  Either or, they contribute to the latter.

 

Furthermore, these choreographies are in line with the Orientalist manners in which colonial powers often depicted Khmer dance and people (remember: Sana Rayya in Revolt of the Zombies).  This is no surprise as contemporary Thai nationalism took life from the threats of European colonial powers, whose imperialist mentalities and strategies it imitated in an attempt to hang onto independence.  The most unfortunate example of this is when Thai nationalists describe Cambodia as a former “colony,” despite the fact that what actually existed was a traditional system of vassalage as illuminated by Peter Vail:

 

“From the mid-[eighteenth] century, petty [Khmer] kingdoms in what are now the provinces of Surin, Buriram and Srisaket, as well as Battambong, Sisophon, and Siem Reap in Cambodia, were aligned in tributary relations with the Siamese court (and in many cases they were simultaneously aligned in relation to Vietnam) . . . In day-to-day affairs, these petty kingdoms were highly autonomous, and few outside their courts had dealings with any living, breathing Siamese.”[448]

In addition, David Chandler writes:

“As we have seen, the northwestern sruk had come under Thai control in 1794, apparently in exchange for Thai permission for Eng, Sisowath’s grandfather, to rule at Udong.  Over the next hundred years, except for a brief period in the 1830s, the Thai made little effort to colonize (or depopulate) the region, choosing to govern it at most levels with ethnic Khmer.  Although [the Thai] did nothing to restore the temples at Angkor, they left them intact.”[449]

In fact, of this relationship between Cambodia and Thailand, “[t]here is no evidence . . . that the Cambodians ever transmitted the gold and silver trees (banga mas) that were a feature of tribute to Bangkok from other dependent states.”[450]  But, let’s table this discussion of Thai nationalism for now, and move on to Khmer reconstructions of Angkor.

Robam Teveak Srei Suor.  Source: YouTube.

This dance, Robam Teveak Srei Suor (Dance of Celestial Women), was choreographed very recently by artists at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.  Like the prior two Thai clips, it tackles the most popular iconographic convention used to denote the act of dance at Angkor, one that has, as I have mentioned earlier, mistakenly led people to believe that Khmer dance at that time was a completely different form than what it is today.  In the reliefs and sculpture however, the pose is expressionistic more than actual reality.  So although a painting or photograph can capture the feeling, spirit, or essence of an apple, it will never be the apple itself.  Thus, close observation of the dancing apsara and yogini at Angkor—so vivid, so alive, so natural—will often reveal disproportionate bodies. 

 

From 4:11 to 4:17 in the video, the soloist Hun Pen can be seen executing kbach chak—depicted at the ninth-century temple of Bakong and still in use today in many traditional works—into the lifted-leg pose known by some as ardhaparyanka.  The effect is one of harmony, a seamless integration of the latter gesture into the classical style.  So, whereas Thai artists have used the gesture to invent a narrative of rupture, difference, and discontinuity, a Khmer artist has used it to speak to artistic and technical evolution and, through that, a continuity to the artistic and cultural legacy of Angkor.

 

The movements and costumes of iconography are not all that Khmers are using in our reconstructions of Angkor however.  The Legend of Apsara Mera, directed by Princess Buppha Devi, mixes classical dance, khaol, and sbek thom (large shadow puppetry) to bring the Churning of the Ocean of Milk to life so as to explain the mytho-historical origins of the Khmer people.  It has a historical precedent actually, but this version is different in which specific short dances have been incorporated in full into one narrative.  The work opens with movements from Robam Yon Kabi, later puzzle-piecing choreography from Robam Moni Mekhala, Robam Apsara, Robam Tep Monorom, and Robam Makar to name but a few.

Legend of Apsara Mera performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  Source: YouTube.

This recycling of dances—with a few changes to choreography, costume, lyrics, floor pattern, and narrative frame—is often described as an approach to preserve Khmer identity and culture.  Sometimes it is touted as the best and most authentic way to preserve Khmer dance.  However, we must ask ourselves: What happens to an art form, tradition, culture, people, and society when we defy the law of life and the Buddhism which we uphold—the law of impermanence, change, growth, and transformation—to become only five or six dances?  What happens to us as a people when we allow ourselves to carry only a few ideas, and to see the world with limited lenses and approaches?

 

To the viewer without historical awareness however—from the general audience member to professional critics, Khmer and not alike—this is hardly a concern.  Pretty girls in pretty costumes is often enough.  This is no surprise as not everyone has the training, context, and awareness to know if we are dancing in accord with our tradition (or what that tradition even is).  However, at the end of the day, everyone can spot a truly remarkable performer as we all have the capacity to experience a transcendent, universal beauty.  A case in point is this review of The Legend of Apsara Mera by Apollinaire Scherr in The Financial Times:

 

“Cambodian court dance has always been a spiritual activity – dedicated to the ancestors and especially the gods, whom the dancers reflect in their calm elegance.  But there is a fine line between serenity and inertness, and in a rare visit to New York as part of the Season of Cambodia, the Royal Ballet crossed it a few times too many . . . Oceanic battles and nation-sized passions are the stuff of theatre.  And though this lilting idiom does not lend itself to grand theatrics, the repeated gestures and phrases can act like a rising tide.  With Apsara Mera, however, the story tended to get lost in the repetitions so we were unprepared for the big dramatic moments . . . More bothersome still were the lapses in rhythmic pulse, inherited perhaps from the princess-director herself, who as an impossibly beautiful star in the 1960s liked to blur the beat . . . Loveliest of all was the live pin peat music: the soft, round melodies, the harmonies of women and men’s plainchant, the sudden huddle of beats when an episode rushed to a close.  If only the dancing had achieved such fullness.”[451]

 

To translate this into a Khmer context, Apollinaire Scherr—untrained in Khmer dance—saw the sambok (shell) of spirituality rather than the essential core of the actual thing.  This is a fear and critique of contemporary Khmer performance that knowledgeable masters and practitioners often express.  Chheng Phon, for example, once said:

 

“Today I’m afraid that we won’t take care of things well.  The essence always precedes the birth.  That’s really important!  Today, the essence is all gone and all that remains is the birth, the production – and even that is disappearing.  It becomes a birth without spirit, a birth without vitality, a birth without essence.  It’s only a shell that’s left and then it become[s] an empty form with only the veneer of the ‘artistic’.  At the end, when there’s not even any birth or creation anymore, it just becomes commercial exploitation, making money through performing.  Today, if you know how to sing a little bit, you sing for money.  If you know how to dance a little bit, you dance for money.  If you know how to paint a little bit, you paint for money.  I say that in the future, we’ll all be ruined if we do [this].  As more and more tourists come, everyone follows the dollar.  If they give you fifty dollars, you do the fifty dollar value.  If they give you twenty dollars, you do the twenty dollar value.  If they give a dancer ten dollars, they dance the ten dollar dance.  I don’t know what to do about that.  You can’t bargain with art.  You can’t use dollars to think about the value of a dance.  You can’t do that!”[452]

 

Furthermore, as we can see from the review, making dances as an expression of “Khmerness” does not guarantee that it is beautiful.  Nor is it enough to take care of the art form.  It in fact places limitations and borders, creates artists and performers lacking sight of the equally significant global, human and spiritual picture.  In such a case, we can only offer so much to our tradition and world.  And it is unfortunate because the expression of “Khmerness” is the dominant preoccupation of Khmer classical dancers in Cambodia and abroad.  When something is labeled as “Khmer,” it seems to become above critique and is almost infallible.  However, in order to take care of Khmer classical dance and push it forward—make sure that every aspect of its spirit stays alive—Khmer artists must push for something higher, fuller, and much more meaningful.  As Chheng Phon has said years ago, “We want to serve the interests of a universal, regional, and national aesthetic in our cultural work.”[453]  I have often referred to this idea, but as being local in character and global in significance.

 

So although national pride can inspire the production of works such as Robam Apsara and Robam Teveak Srei Suor—in tune with the origins and evolutions of the robam tradition—it can also lead us astray to promote ethnocentric misunderstandings such as Rabam Lopburi which stresses fragmentations and inventions.  And, when pairing this nationalist sentiment with entertainment, it becomes a harmful addiction of sorts.  It is easy to consume and accept it, and the more we take it in the more lost that we become.  Remember how high on “Khmerness” and Khmer glory the Khmer Rouge got, for example, and look at what they wreaked upon the art form, people, and land.  Art, however, is not confined by borders.  Nor is it entertainment.  Art can be entertaining.  Art can be challenging.  Art can be beautiful.  But art is never a fleeting joy or temporary escape from the world that entertainment is.  Art transforms.

 

That said, The Legend of Apsara Mera is a valuable lesson in the way that works of art become authenticated by an audience.  Its association with a nostalgic royal past has led many people both inside and outside of Cambodia, Khmer and not alike, to elevate and exoticize it to a place beyond critique.  In doing so, they misrepresent an individual’s or group’s artistic decisions and sensibilities as the nature of the tradition itself.  Allistair MacCaulay, for example, wrote in his non-review of The Legend of Apsara Mera, “Some Western observers will surely feel that drama has been eliminated here in the pursuit of soft-spoken and ordered beauty.”[454]

 

He goes on further:

 

“[B]ut Cambodian ballet began as private palace entertainment . . . [Princess Buppha Devi] has been in charge of this company since the 1980s . . . For Cambodian ballet, the biggest change is that an in-palace entertainment has become a form of public display . . . Certainly it’s impressive that, despite the fraught political history of Cambodia in the late [twentieth] century, this company still tells highly charged stories (gods versus giants; the marriage of a goddess and a prince) in terms of religious worship, utmost politeness and order.”[455]

 

Anyone who has seen Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso or the Reamker however knows that drama is high, tight, charged, precise, intense, and elevated in Khmer classical dance works.  Ted Shawn, who saw the prior dance drama, wrote in 1929:

 

“We were tired beyond any weariness we had ever known.  We had driven over rough roads, through infernal heat for seven hours, we had been so cruelly stung by mosquitoes and other insects that our bodies were aflame—we sat in the palace with the steam rugs wrapped around our legs up to our hips because of the ferocious mosquitoes—and yet we were unconscious of our bodies completely for three hours, and truly were transported into the fairy realm wherein these exquisite creatures unfolded their tales of princesses, hero princes, giants, and demons.”[456]

 

That said, let us break down MacCaulay’s words to see how foreign movement vocabularies and cultures become authenticated through colonial, royal, and religious nostalgias. 

 

First off, I always grow a little skeptical when people use outdated colonial constructions of “East and West” or “Eastern” and “Western.”  There is also north and south, and everywhere between these points is center.  The contemporary labeling of Khmer classical dance as a “ballet” extends from this same colonial legacy.  And, although it may have made sense when people possessed less cultural sensitivity in the modern era, there’s no excuse for it now. 

 

The company's decision to still refer to itself as the Royal Ballet of Cambodia may be a matter of maintaining historical connections.  It is, after all, how the palace company first came to be known to the Eurocentric world.  Intentional or not however, it is ultimately an example of self-exotification in which the art form and Khmer people lose in the end.  Why are we still using the terms of a people who referred to our ancestors as ignorant savages to assert our validity in the world?  Why does Khmer dance have to be a “ballet” in order to be an expression of art and culture, elegance and sophistication, knowledge and beauty?  It does not; it stands as those things on its own aesthetic, spiritual, and historical foundations.  Fittingly, by contrast, the “Royal Dance Company of Cambodia,” the more linguistically and culturally accurate translation of Krom Robam Preahreacheatrap (Nei Kampuchea), carries no less prestige.

 

Secondly, the art form did not begin as a private palace entertainment.  Its roots reflect an indigenous movement culture that came to be synthesized with court and temple culture most significantly for the purpose of worship.  Furthermore, we know that it has existed beyond the walls of the palace since the time of Angkor even, and that the art form was partly able to survive centuries of continuous war in Cambodia because of its existence outside of the palace.  In line with this misconception is the assertion by some that Princess Buppha Devi “single-handedly revived the Royal Ballet,”[457] which serves to delete the contributions of so many artists who did an invaluable and immensely crucial amount of work to revive the art form.  It robs artists such as Chea Samy, Soth Sam On, Chheng Phon, Em Theay, Ros Kong, Sim Muntha, Proeung Chhieng, Menh Kossany, Pen Sokhuon, Soth Somaly, and many more of the rightful honor that they deserve.  

 

In actuality, as we have seen, the princess was absent from Cambodia for more than twenty years and did not return until 1992.  She taught dance in a refugee camp in Thailand starting in the 1980s and then only reconstituted the Royal Ballet of Cambodia by drawing upon the students trained by the prior mentioned artists.  So it could be said that she revived the Royal Ballet in the 1980s—but then only as a company.  The confusing thing here unfortunately is that the art of Khmer classical dance in its entirety has come to be referred by some as a “royal ballet.”  And, in such a case, statements such as those by MacCaulay are false and misleading.

 

Lastly, there is nothing religious about The Legend of Apsara Mera.  This is a crutch that people fall upon without fail when they exoticize the peoples of Asia.  It is strictly a dance of entertainment, one drawing upon the post-independence discourses of Cambodia and from the preservationist realities of a post-Khmer Rouge era.  This claim that the dance work is religious serves to color it with a weight of authenticity.  And in that authenticity, it serves to establish the authority of the Princess and her company in the minds of public audiences.  Chheng Phon, however, has once said, “‘The important thing is not a ritual relation to the king . . . but that spiritual purity must be preserved.’”[458]

 

“Spiritual purity” because: everyone in the world regardless of class, race, ethnicity, education, sexuality, geography, gender, or ability has the potential to experience it.  Because the most meaningful artists and performers are those that touch a deep, universal human core that inspires us to make positive gestures in our hearts, minds, homes, streets, and communities.  They inspire the awakening of our souls and beings, as well as the enlightening of our world.  Chheng Phon’s words are echoed in this story, of which I encountered several years ago:

Once some time ago, the emperor Akbar the Great had the best of everything: the most delightful of food, the most beautiful of women, and the most talented of artists to name a few.  Of the latter, he treasured most his court poet who composed verses that sang him praise.  After each performance, the emperor would always exclaim, “How magically you sing!  Surely there is no one of comparison!”

One day however, Akbar catches word of a blind poet who sings better than those at court.  He demands the poet be brought forth and orders him to sing.  The blind man, gathering himself, sings and sends powerful notes, pitches, phrases, and images ringing throughout the walls of the palace.  Shaken and stirred, stunned and inspired, Akbar asks his most prized court poet how can it be.  To which, the latter responds, “Your majesty I sing for you, for humans.  And he—he sings for god.”

Let us remember that Khmer dancers were once known as kñum vrah rapam (servants of the sacred dance). And let us now turn our attention to Khmer dance ritual, and the ancient purposes from which Khmer dance takes life.  Through this, we will find a clear place for a most vulnerable and beautiful art form in our present and future.  Further, we will see how Khmer classical dance artists—whether we are working traditionally or experimentally—are connected to the potent, living legacy of Angkor.

NEXT

[419] Name has been omitted for sensitivity issues.  August 2008.

[420] Sasagawa, Hideo.  "Post/Colonial Discourses on the Cambodian Court Dance".  Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 42, No. 4, March 2005. Pages 418 - 441.

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[427] Edwards, Penny.  Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860 – 1945.  University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.  Page 23.

[428] Edwards, Penny.  Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860 – 1945.  University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.  Page 23.

[429] Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, direct communication.  2008.

[430] Chankethya Chey, direct communication.  2013.

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[434] Pou, Saveros.  Selected Papers on Khmerology.  Reyum Publishing, 2003.  Page 267.

[435] Pou, Saveros.  Selected Papers on Khmerology.  Reyum Publishing, 2003.  Page 337 – 340.

[436] Mehta, Julie B.  Dance of Life.  Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd., 2001.  Page 250.

[437] Pou, Saveros.  Selected Papers on Khmerology.  Reyum Publishing, 2003.  Page 229.

[438] Jarus, Owen. "Angkor Wat Yields Astounding Buried Towers & Spiral Structure." LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 9 Dec. 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. http://www.livescience.com/53035-angkor-wat-yields-buried-towers-spiral-structure.html.

[439] Mabbett, Ian and David Chandler.  The Khmers.  Blackwell Publishers, 1996.  Page 192.

[440] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 492.

[441]  Wongthes, Mukhom.  Intellectual Might and National Myth.  Matichon Public Co., Ltd., 2003.  Page 16.

[442] Kasetsiri, Charnvit. "Thailand and Cambodia: A Love-Hate Relationship." Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://kyotoreview.org/issue-3-nations-and-stories/a-love-hate-relationship/.

[443] Wongthes, Mukhom.  Intellectual Might and National Myth.  Matichon Public Co., Ltd., 2003.  Page xi.

[444] Mabbett, Ian and David Chandler.  The Khmers.  Blackwell Publishers, 1996.  Pages 16, 200, and 202 – 203.

[445] Kasetsiri, Charnvit. "Thailand and Cambodia: A Love-Hate Relationship." Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://kyotoreview.org/issue-3-nations-and-stories/a-love-hate-relationship/.

[446] Vail, Peter. Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’. Asian Ethnicity, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2007, Pages 111 - 130.

[447] Vail, Peter. Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’. Asian Ethnicity, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2007, Pages 111 - 130.

[448] Vail, Peter. Thailand’s Khmer as ‘Invisible Minority’. Asian Ethnicity, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2007, Pages 111 - 130.

[449] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Pages 183 - 184.

[450] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 137.

[451] Scherr, Apollinaire. "Royal Ballet of Cambodia, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York – Review - FT.com." Financial Times. 5 May 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/3fc984fa-b3d5-11e2-b5a5-00144feabdc0.html.

[452] Phon, Chheng.  “A Conversation with Chheng Phon.”  Cultures of Independence. Ed. Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan.  Reyum, 2001.  Pages 104 – 105.

[453] "Flowers in the Forest: A Talk with Chheng Phon, Minister of Information and Culture." Cultural Survival. 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/cambodia/flowers-forest-talk-chheng-phon-minister-informati.

[454] Macaulay, Alastair. "All of This Restraint in the Service of Beauty." The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 May 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/arts/dance/royal-ballet-of-cambodia-at-brooklyn-academy-of-music.html?_r=0.

[455] Macaulay, Alastair. "All of This Restraint in the Service of Beauty." The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 May 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/arts/dance/royal-ballet-of-cambodia-at-brooklyn-academy-of-music.html?_r=0.

[456] Shawn, Ted.  Gods Who Dance.  E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1929.  Page 164.

[457] Addison, Brian. "Royal Ballet of Cambodia Returns to Long Beach After 13-Year Absence." Long Beach Post. 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://lbpost.com/life/arts-culture/2000004590-royal-ballet-of-cambodia-returns-to-long-beach-after-15-year-absence.

[458] Coburn, Judith. "DANCING BACK : Decimated by the Khmer Rouge, Bruised by Political Chaos and Threatened by a Frenzy of Modern Materialism, Will the Soul of an Ancient Culture Survive?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 26 Sept. 1993. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-26/magazine/tm-39064_1_khmer-rouge/8.