KING MONIVONG & THE COLONIAL STRUGGLE

With the ascension of King Monivong to the throne, Khmer classical dance played a stronger role in the political struggle between the monarchy and the French.  During his coronation, French colonial authorities “had already prepared a document . . . which transferred control of the dancers from the Royal Palace administration to the [newly founded] École des Beaux-Arts.”[276]  Facing great financial limitations—and the reality that only two dancers chose to stay in the palace following King Sisowath’s death—the new king was forced to sign the agreement.

 

The role of the dancers as civil servants was, however, short-lived and lasted for less than a year.[277]  After the jeweler stole the precious gold and silver ornaments and fled to Thailand in 1928, the palace eventually regained control of the troupe and recruited from private companies to ensure the proper amount of dancers for ritual propitiations.[278]  This was necessary as many of the dancers had already married during their time as civil servants, thus rendering them inappropriate for a life as palace performers and members of the harem.

The Khmer and French battle for authority over the dance and the nation it symbolized came to manifest in the artistic visions of two artists: Princess Say Sangvann and Lok Khun Meak.  Both were in the lineage of dancers from the palace.

Formerly a star of the royal troupe, Princess Say Sangvann married Prince Vong Kath and became a member of the royal family.  Following a dispute in the court though, she left the palace and started her own troupe.  She was immediately supported by the French administration which provided her with the resources to properly train the company.  It was Princess Say Sangvann’s troupe that was chosen to represent Cambodia at the Colonial Exhibition in 1931 and, following their return, they were “granted a subsidy by the French government and declared to be the official ‘one and only’ true Khmer dancers with exclusive rights of performance for distinguished guests both in the salon of the Resident-Superior and at Angkor Wat.”[279]

Despite its technical and artistic rigor, and the subsidies provided to the company by the French authorities, the composition of Princess Say Sangvann’s troupe fluctuated greatly.  In fact, young dancers such as Soth Sam On—my teacher’s teacher, a woman who would later become indispensable to the survival of Khmer dance—left the Princess’s troupe in order to rejoin the dancers in the palace.[280]

Princess Say Sangvann and her dancers made Khmer dance accessible to foreign journalists, tourists, as well as local Khmer people during this period.  The painter Jean Despujols created some images of the company, including their torch-lit performances at Angkor as well as a portrait of the star dancer Saem (whose name refers to the color of her valued skin tone, a honey-brown).  The troupe is last known to perform in 1941 and Princess Say Sangvann, for all of her work, was perceived by her contemporaries as a puppet of French political intentions.  She ultimately found herself in “significant” financial debt to an Indian banker.[281]  The French, in the end, made the princess to be “a cantankerous harpy determined to evade her debts and [emphasized] the (deserved) failure of her private dancing troupe.”[282]

Princess Say Sangvann, center, with star dancers from her company.​​  From Earth in Flower by Paul Cravath, courtesy DatAsia Press.

Star performer of Princess Say Sangvann’s troupe, circa 1937.  From Earth in Flower by Paul Cravath, courtesy DatAsia Press.

Meanwhile, dance inside the palace increasingly came under the artistic charge of Lok Khun Meak.  A star dancer during the reign of King Sisowath, she was trained in female, male, and demon roles.  The woman was a favorite of King Monivong, of whom she bore children to.  In Toni Shapiro-Phim’s Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia, Chea Samy recalls Lok Khun Meak’s ability to play roneat (xylophone) and khloy (bamboo flute), and the way she would often solemnly play her music.[283]

Displeased with the state of dance within the palace walls and unhappy with French influences on dance amongst private troupes outside the court, Lok Khun Meak began a rigorous program to pass on the art form in her vision of the most authentic style.  Alongside her work with the palace dancers, she began to train approximately twenty young girls and later offered them to Princess Kossamak Nearyrath, the daughter of King Monivong.[284]

Opportunities to see the king’s dancers were rare, especially in comparison to King Sisowath’s francophilia and openness.  One of the chances to see and be seen by them however was during the yearly Water Festival.  Xenia Zarina, a European ballet dancer who studied briefly with Princess Say Sangvann, wrote:

“For the Fete des Eaux Cambodians come from far and near, from every province, to take part in or to witness the celebrations.  Fireworks and street processions of amusing and clever paper figures, with lantern processions at night, make the town gay.  Within the pink-red crenellated walls of the palace enclosure, in a spacious pavilion besides the famous Silver Pagoda, provincial ballets requested for the festivities dance all day.  Anyone may come and watch.  As the pavilion is open on three sides, the spectators sit or stand.  The ballets I saw there had excellent and well-costumed star dancers.  They danced their very best, for if they pleased some palace talent scout they might be chosen for the King’s ballet which would be a great honor, and their families would be well provided for ever after.  There appeared to be quite a large membership in the ballets I saw, and in certain scenes representing processions or a trip to another locality, the whole troupe took part following the leading dancers, getting smaller and younger and less adept and less well costumed until the last tiny tots stumblingly brought up the rear, practically in rags, and doing their best not to forget the dance figures.”[285]

Zarina’s description of these performances at Pochani Pavilion inside the palace is important as it illustrates the breadth to which dance—in keeping with Angkorean times and the rest of Khmer history—existed in and permeated all levels of Khmer society.  This is further evidenced by the fact that Neak Kru Sophiline’s great grandfather even, “just a commune chief” in the humble countryside, had his own khaol troupe.[286]  Again, these groups were likely led by former court dancers and their students, and based their standards on those of the royal palace.  And, of the dancers of the latter, Zarina saw them on King Monivong’s birthday in 1937 and remarked that they were “unquestionably the best in Cambodia.”[287]

For what it's worth, the not always reliable Groslier notes in 1929 that "[t]he archives of the Royal Palace preserve a scanty thirty plays, and incomplete plays at that, in which you'd be hard pressed to glean more than ten different themes."[288]  In addition, he notes a particularly interesting and outdated performance convention, one which reflects the physical and political context in which dance performances took place: 

"In fact, the director is a most fortunate man!  Khmer theater plays without a set—or, more accurately, with an unchanging set.  The hall consists of a roof supported by columns.  The audience sits all around, as in a circus, though with a rectangular ring.  The king and dignitaries sit on one long side of the rectangle.  Facing them is the chorus.  At one short side is the orchestra, across from which the actresses enter by one door and leave by another.  Two low tables face each other onstage.  When the action calls for a prop—a small mirror, an offering, a bow, a cushion, a magic box—a female servant quite openly brings it onstage and comes to fetch it when it is no longer needed.  The costumer makes no bones about coming onstage mid-play to adjust a belt or rearrange the costume of an actress in motion.  There is thus really nothing for the director to do.  Again, nothing could be simpler or less theatrical.  Certainly no effort goes into maintaining any illusion or capturing the audience's imagination by material means."[289]

First off, it is important to note how the structure of the pavilion lent itself to performances in the round (or rectangle to be more accurate).  This naturally lent itself to a non-illusory approach to theatrical staging and performance—as not all spectators had equal views and, therefore, access to dramatic action and development. Just as much as experiencing the performance then, this convention brought to the fore the ability to view one another viewing the performance.  This then emphasizes the relationships of all those present, reflected in who has the privilege of sitting where, which way the dancers face, costumers coming in to maintain the appearance and status of a dancer, servants coming in to bestow a gift from the king upon a favorite.  In short, dancers of the era performed in a more visibly porous situation, one in which the boundaries between performers, spectators, and patrons, divine and earthly space was blurred.  This latter aspect has been a component of Khmer dance for a long time, and shows how dance, when associated with the palace, has traditionally reflected and reinforced the king's power as well as everyone's place within the social hierarchy.

Beyond this, Cravath notes that little is known about King Monivong’s dancers.  Perhaps, as a reflection of the tense times and his desire to maintain control, the king kept his dancers off limits unless a situation absolutely required otherwise.  Just as one small example of this, there are no known photos of Chea Samy although she was a star of the palace troupe during this time.  

That said, sources indicate that the dance master—who first began her training under the harsh discipline of Lok Khun Meak—was known for her portrayals of Moni Mekhala[290] and became “the most celebrated royal dancer of her day.”[291]  By some accounts, she also became the king’s consort.  She, along with other palace dancers, continued to perform dances of prayer to ensure the fertility and well-being of the nation.  And, again in line with their predecessors, they served as entertainers and servants of the king.  When he died in 1941, Chea Samy did not dance at the funeral as she had done for that of his father King Sisowath.  Rather, she shaved her head in mourning.

NEXT

[276] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 191.

[277] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 194.

[278] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 195.

[279] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 198.

[280] John Shapiro, direct communication.  August 2014.

[281] Jacobsen, Trudy.  Lost Goddesses.  NIAS Press, 2008.  Page 159.

[282] Jacobsen, Trudy.  Lost Goddesses.  NIAS Press, 2008.  Page 159.

[283] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 116.

[284] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 204.

[285] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 206.

[286] Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, direct communication.  August 2014.

[287] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 207.

[288] Groslier, George.  "Theatre and Dance in Cambodia." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 303 - 321.  

[289] Groslier, George.  "Theatre and Dance in Cambodia." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 303 - 321.  

[290] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 111.

[291] "The Camargo Foundation : Fellow Project Details." The Camargo Foundation : Fellow Project Details. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.camargofoundation.org/fellowdetails_new05.asp?recno=495.