KHMER DANCE TODAY: A SURVEY

One day, after having lunch with a few friends in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo district, I went into one of my favorite shops.  As I made my way through beautiful bowls and vintage postcards, I came upon a book titled The Art of Life and Death.  Curious, and turning to its back cover to find out more, I was struck by a few of the authors’ words: “There is a Japanese proverb that admonishes a student not to step on the shadow of his teacher.”[484]

 

On my way home that day, I thought much about that one line.  I certainly agreed with the deep reverence and respect palpable in the statement, the obvious interpretation being not to step on or disrespect your teacher’s knowledge and legacy.  But I could not help but feel like there was something more.  I began to visualize the image, at first seeing myself walking along a dirt path directly behind my teacher.  One or two steps behind her every move—imitating her every step (or what I perceived her to be doing)—I soon saw myself walking upon her shadow.  I had to therefore move myself appropriately; but in order to do so I had to know where the light was coming from.  And this is when I came to understand the image fully. 

 

Depending on which direction the light source is, I had to be behind my teacher, directly by her side, or in front of her to avoid her shadow.  In order to be the most respectful and devoted and effective student possible, I have to constantly encircle my teacher and our lineage as I move forward in my own artistic journey.  Sometimes I must follow precisely in her footsteps and preserve the knowledge she passed on to me detail by detail.  Sometimes I must engage with her and all she represents side by side.  Sometimes I must forge my own path and journey by walking in front of my teacher, guiding our lineage towards new horizons.  In fact, I have to be doing all of these things at once.  It is in fact perfectly possible to preserve an art form by pushing it, maintain a tradition by innovating with and within it at the same time.

 

Keeping this image in mind, let us now survey today’s landscape of Khmer dance.  Created by artists of various ages, abilities, career experiences, and backgrounds, these diverse works give a glimpse of Khmer dance in its global context.  It features artists working in both Cambodia and the diaspora and is by no means all-inclusive.  The featured artists have all gone through years of classical dance training and each pass on the art form traditionally through their work as teachers.  We in fact all belong to and encircle the same lineage, one which traces itself to the palace in the modern era and further to the temples of Angkor, to the neak, and to Lok Ta Moni Eisey.

 

My original intent was to focus solely on artists working within the context of “contemporary” performance.  Given the intersected history of artmaking and colonialism however—and the inequities it breeds within the global art world—I felt like it was important to define that term “contemporary” through these videos.

 

Contemporary is not the same as “post-modern.”  It’s not specific to any vocabulary, style, culture, or community.  Rather, contemporary is being in harmony with time.  And our experience of time is layered, one where the past is living in our present gestures, where those gestures become the past as soon as they take life, and where the past and present reveal our future.

 

By virtue of existence then, everything is contemporary.  And, no matter how old or new a dance work is, it is a singular act of creation each time it is performed; for it is embodied in the way that only one dancer can, in that specific moment of his or her life, in that one theater or street, surrounded by the histories and experiences of those who witness it (and the contexts just keep on expanding into the vastness of the cosmos). 

 

In sharing these videos, which are both excerpts and full-length pieces, documentation of dance and dance for camera, I present the individual voices of artists who speak to, contrast with, and augment one another’s unique qualities through their work.  I also refrain from judging them by artistic merit, quality, or value.  Through this, I offer the most expansive definition of contemporaneity as it manifests within the Khmer dance tradition.  In certain cases, I offer multiple videos for single artists to show the breadth of their work.  Given that light and shadow are eternally tied—remember Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and the patterns of bird-like creatures colliding and spiraling into each other at Angkor Wat—perhaps the special meaning, beauty, and significance of each artist and their work can only truly surface in relation to each other, and in relation to practitioners of different art forms, eras, and cultures as well.  Therefore, through these videos, let us once again contemplate and honor the wisdom of Chheng Phon: “A garden with only one kind of flower or only flowers of one color is no good.”[485]

 

Here then, are some of the many “flowers in the forest” of Khmer dance.[486]

SOPHILINE ARTS ENSEMBLE

Takhmao, Cambodia

Seasons of Migration, choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and performed by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble.  Source: YouTube.

Mongkul Lokey, choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and set to Shir Ha-Shirim by John Zorn.  Performed by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble. Source: YouTube.

The Lives of Giants, choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and performed by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble.  Source: YouTube.

A Bend in the River, choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and performed by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble.  Source: YouTube.

Stained, choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and performed by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble.  Source: YouTube.

ROYAL BALLET OF CAMBODIA

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Inao Bosseba, choreographed by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi and performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  Source: YouTube.

Sovannahang, choreographed by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi and performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  Source: YouTube.

Excerpt of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia in a style constructed from film footage of the Sisowath era.  Source: YouTube.

SOTH SOMALY

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Robam Reasmei Duong Chantrea, choreographed by Soth Somaly.  Source: YouTube.

BALLET CLASSIQUE DU CAMBODGE

Paris, France

Robam Kolab Phnom Penh performed by Ballet Classique du Cambodge.  Source: YouTube.

CHEY CHANKETHYA

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

My Mothers and I, choreographed and performed by Chey Chankethya.  Source: YouTube.

Departures, choreographed by Chey Chankethya and performed by Amrita Performing Arts.  Source: YouTube.

BELLE CHUMVAN SODHACHIVY

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Choreography and performance by Belle Chumvan Sodhachivy.  Source: YouTube.

Choreography and performance by Belle Chumvan Sodhachivy in SajakThor.  Source: Vimeo.

MINISTRY OF CULTURE AND FINE ARTS

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Dance depicting Queens Jayarajadevi and Indradevi.  Source: YouTube.

ANGKOR DANCE TROUPE

Lowell, MA, United States

Apsara Dancing Stones, choreographed and performed by Angkor Dance Troupe.  Source: YouTube.

CAMBODIAN BUDDHIST SOCIETY

Silver Spring, MD, United States

Agangamasor and His Magic Power.  Choreography and performance by Cambodian Buddhist Society.  Source: YouTube.

CHARYA BURT CAMBODIAN DANCE

Santa Rosa, CA, United States

Charya Burt Original Works.  Source: YouTube.

Caressing Nostalgia, choreographed and performed by Charya Burt.  Source: YouTube.

Of Spirits Intertwined, choreographed and performed by Charya Burt, Vishnu Tattva Das, and Melody Takata.  Source: YouTube.

Forever My Ancestors, choreographed and performed by Charya Burt.  Source: YouTube.

NEXT

[484] Fletcher, Daniel and Azizi, Sleiman.  The Art of Life and Death.  Tuttle Publishing, 2012.  Back cover.

[485] "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.

[486] "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.