STARTING FROM THE BODY, A LIVING LIBRARY
Teaching a student at the Khmer Arts Theater. Photo: Morn Sopharoth.
When you look at a Khmer classical dancer, you will find a strong aesthetic of curves. There is an arching in the back, a bending in the knees, and a curling of the toes. In the arms there is a hyper-flexing of the elbow and the fingers are flexed back in an extreme curve often mistaken for double-jointedness. Moving slowly, lower body grounded but upper body more fluid, this gives the dancer a serpentine impression.
This is significant as, before the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism, our ancestors practiced ancestor worship and animism. The latter is the belief that the land, water, mountains, and other natural phenomena all have spirits. And the serpent, in this cosmology, was especially important because it symbolized a bridge between heaven and earth. In its fluid, curvilinear movement, it mimicked the flow of water and conjured the image of rivers cutting through the land. To invoke the serpent in the body then, was to reach out to heaven and channel the deliverance of water and its ability to nurture life. So significant was this power that images of serpents feature prominently in Khmer art and we, as a people, trace our mytho-historical origins to a serpent race known as neak (Sanskrit: naga).
The translation of the serpent into the human form points to the transformation of nature in artmaking, and you can think of the dance form as a stylization of the natural world around us and that of our own human behaviors. For example, the four primary hand gestures in Khmer classical dance are changol, lea, chib, and khuong. Respectively, these represent tree, leaf, flower, and fruit, indicating the cycle of life and further connecting the Khmer classical dancer to the worship of nature.
These four gestures, along with others, are used in varying combination to each other and to bodily positions to create a limitless vocabulary with which dancers express ourselves. Through the use of these gestures and other qualities such as line, shape, weight, and angle, and dramatic elements of character and costume, dancers transform into gods and goddesses, animals and demons alike. We express the fullest capacities of the human experience, including love and joy, sadness and anger, fear and jealousy, and so much more. Today, the four main character types in Cambodia are known as neang (female), neay rong (male), yeak (demon), and sva (monkey). There are others of course, but they appear less frequently in dramatic works known as roeung.
With this in mind, we can now begin to trace the linkages of Khmer dance through history.