QUEEN KOSSAMAK, HER SON KING SIHANOUK & THE DANCE OF INDEPENDENCE

With the independence won over by King Sihanouk in 1953, Cambodia experienced what some have described as “a second golden age.”  The nearly two-decade period was a moment in which the kingdom saw a great surge in creativity, re-introducing and redefining itself on the international stage of culture and politics.  Everything from the pop music of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, films of Ly Bun Yim and Lay Nguon Heng, and acting of Kong Sam Oeun and Dy Saveth reflected the country’s newfound freedom and optimism.  This atmosphere of creativity “stemmed both from a specific will to define an independent nation, as well as broader regional movements towards modernization and development.”[313]  The art of Khmer classical dance was not untouched by this sentiment and increasingly became a symbol of Khmer national heritage, identity, and sovereignty as a result.

To fully understand this moment in Khmer dance history though, it is important to know the events leading up to it.  In 1941, during World War II, the Japanese gained control of French Indochina.  They ceded the territories of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Koh Kong to Thailand, which had been their ally.  This caused a stir amongst the Khmer court and people, reminding them that “Thailand’s designs upon Cambodia were far from being a thing of the past.”[314]

 

There is evidence that, prior to this, Thai artistic sensibilities co-existed with the Khmer style in the palace at Phnom Penh.  George Groslier for example, mentioned the presence of Siamese women amongst King Norodom’s and King Sisowath’s diverse retinue of women.  And, when I shared my admiration for the voice of Em Theay, a dancer once said to me that the old teacher sang not only in Khmer but “beautifully in Thai and Lao too.”[315]  Furthermore, Soth Sam On—the leading performer of demon roles in the post-independence era—has mentioned in a Khmer Dance Project interview that her teachers spoke Thai (but that she herself did not like it).[316]

Revealing the cyclical nature of history and somewhat mirroring the way that the Thai elite of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai adopted Khmer language, art, and culture to assert their right to sovereign authority, the Khmer court later adopted certain elements from the Thai court.  Contrary to what Thai nationalists have claimed and propagated however—and to the scholars who draw from their historiography—it did not result in the importation of an entire classical dance and music tradition at any moment following the Angkor era.  Rather, certain secular dances and secular dance dramas were imported and existed alongside the Khmer repertoire for the purpose of entertainment.

 

On the one hand, the dance dramas are compatible to foreign films in our day.  They were stories of love, betrayal, magic, and more that served as a form of entertainment (although, with the added effect of reflecting royal order and power).  On the other hand, Thai cultural elements—as was certainly the case of Khmer dance and arts—may have represented a certain degree of protest and resistance in a court juggling loyalties and alliances in the face of French domination.  Lok Khun Sancheat Bopha, mother of the anti-French Prince Duong Chakr, for example, was “a supporter of Siamese interests in the court with considerable influence over Norodom” and the king’s mother herself was “a staunch supporter of traditional forms and probably an important supporter of the rising” against colonial rule from 1885 to 1886.[317]  And later, late palace dancer Sim Muntha would recount how the French expelled all dancers from the palace with King Sihanouk's ascension to the throne, refusing to recognize any dancers unassociated with the School of Fine Arts which they founded.[318]

Amidst the power plays of this era, Princess Say Sangvann had sent one of her dancers to Thailand to learn “dance in the Siamese manner” to turn her company into a “successful financial venture.”[319]  And Thai artists themselves were sent by their government to spread Thai culture in Cambodia in order to establish Thai authority.  Khun Kru Lamun Yamakupt, who “stood apart from the royal palace troupe but eventually became the senior and most respected teacher of dance in the Department of Fine Arts in Bangkok,” taught Thai dance in Battambang in 1929 and noted that Nieng and Pan, two dancers from her troupe, eventually taught in Phnom Penh.[320]  Whether they taught in the court or in a private troupe is unclear, for even Chea Samy—who entered the court in 1925 in the last years of King Sisowath—has said that she had been “raised in the palace since she was a mere child” but never knew any Thai dance teachers in residence.[321]  Their statements are not contrary to one another, as Nieng and Pan may also have been Khmer women who studied Thai dance.  Even Khun Kru Lamun Yamakupt noted not ever performing in Phnom Penh because the police “considered all Thai to be political meddlers.”[322]

Regardless to say, evidence points to the fact that the two styles and their repertoires co-existed in the palace and in Cambodia itself.  Ted Shawn’s comment of one dance form being more refined than another and Khun Kru Lamun Yamakupt’s note that “all Cambodian singers she saw then sang in Khmer” all hint to this.[323]  Cravath notes that even King Monivong, who wrestled with the French for control of the royal dancers, was noted to enjoy Thai lakhon.[324]  Finally, Lok Ta Chheng Phon has mentioned two groups of rivaling teachers who reflected “long-standing disagreements of a political nature as well, since each of the two dynastic families of Cambodia—Norodom and Sisowath—maintained troupes who ‘often disputed about the proper dance style.’”[325]  This political rivalry was reflected in the fact that King Norodom was wary of his half-brother who “led troops alongside the French”[326] and “undoubtedly knew of Sisowath’s machinations” to strip him of the throne.[327]  Neak Kru Sophiline has corroborated these contesting dynasties within our conversations, saying that Phnom Penh actually had two palaces with one remaining open to Thai influence and the other loyal to Khmer traditions.[328]  She went on to mention that Queen Kossamak was from the pro-Khmer House of Sisowath and Cravath notes that she did not merge the troupe given to her by Lok Khun Meak with the palace troupe until after the death of King Monivong.[329]

Any positive accord given to Thai artistry and sensibilities would rapidly disintegrate after 1941 however, with the Japanese withdrawal from Cambodia in 1945 and their encouragement of King Sihanouk to declare independence sealing the fate of “Thainess” in the Khmer court.  The post-independence nationalism that swept the whole of Khmer dance was a direct response to imperialist threats of the time, described by Thai scholar Thongchai Winichakul as “the ‘big wolf’ of France and ‘small wolf’ of Siam fighting over the ‘lambs’ of Lao and Cambodian territories.”[330]  Even as France regained control of Cambodia following King Sihanouk’s 1945 declaration, new dances reflecting the spirit of autonomy were already starting to take life in the Khmer court.  Queen Kossamak Nearyrath, working with the artists, would redefine Khmer dance in these years and after independence in 1953 to create some of the most popular works in the canon today.

Robam Aspara (Dance of the Apsara), one of the most popular Khmer classical dances, "sn[uck] into palace programs in 1948."[331]  Interestingly, this same dance was later described by Princess Buppha Devi as choreographed in 1963, after the costume was initially created for Marcel Camus's L'Oiseau de paradis in 1961.[332]  That said, the work was later set upon Princess Buppha Devi in King Sihanouk’s 1966 film Apsara. This helped to popularize the dance amongst the Khmer people, with the result that Robam Apsara has come to represent the highest in Khmer notions of feminine grace and ethnic and national identity today.

Princess Buppha Devi in Robam Apsara.  Source: YouTube.

King Sihanouk continued directing and producing films that depicted Khmer classical dance, providing larger access to the court tradition and augmenting his political aura amongst the people.  Chhaya Lea Angkor, made in 1967, uses Khmer dancers to depict an allegory of good versus evil.  And in Le Cortege Royal (1969), dancers pay tribute to him with offerings of gold and silver flowers.  Prior to this Queen Kossamak commissioned an American film crew to document the palace troupe in The Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  The film, released in 1965, shows the dancers in rehearsal, ritual, and performance in the palace and at the temples of Angkor.

Queen Kossamak Nearyrath (right) with her husband King Suramarit in 1956.  Courtesy of the Southeast Asia Digital Library, Northern Illinois University.

Ultimately, of the two royals though, it was the Queen who would have the most impact upon the dancers and the art form.  She supervised rehearsals, working with artists such as Lok Khun Meak, Mam Dak Peay, Hang Thun Hak, and others to improve the technical and artistic rigor of the company.  Costuming elements such as sbai size and skirt patterns were made to be more petite, creating a more subtle refinement that set a standard for those worn today.  The painting of the face and body white with yihun powder was discontinued.[333] Dances were also shortened for palace programs and excerpts from dance dramas came to be reinterpreted as short dances.  Any remaining works priorly sung in Thai were translated under the Queen's charge,[334] and certain dances and dance dramas that were popular during her father’s reign were eliminated from the repertoire altogether.[335]

Robam Chun Por, Robam Makar, and Robam Buong Suong Yokon were choreographed or re-choreographed by Mam Dak Peay.[336] And Robam Pka Meas Pka Prak, Robam Tevet, Robam Chos Srang, and Robam Tep Monorom (and more) were choreographed or re-choreographed by Mam Yann.[337]  Under the Queen's direction, the latter dance, which was originally an intimate duet, became a harmonious spectacle of twelve, eighteen, and sometimes even more dancers.  “The tradition of large dances of this sort was a stylistic convention of the ancient religious offertory dances to the spirits . . . The result was a danced ritual of delicate precision set in spectacular theatricality.”[338]

 

Robam Apsara, whose opening solo was completely new choreography, incorporated an entire section of choreography, music, and lyrical verses from the drama of Preah Samuth Neang Puth Somaly for its second half.  Further, movements associated with certain melodies such as smeu, used for the entrance of an important character, and lea, used for the ending of short dances, came to be standardized.  In fact, the contemporary structure of many short dance works of the Khmer canon can be traced to this period.

One of the biggest changes of this time was Queen Kossamak’s decision to have monkey roles enacted by male dancers.  After seeing the khaol troupe of Wat Svay Andet perform, she incorporated some dancers into the royal company.[339]  Prior to this—in modern memory, anyways—monkey roles were performed by women and bore much more similarity in style to the other roles.  Emphasizing extreme acrobatic ability with a high degree of naturalism however, monkey roles now stood in greater contrast to the dignified refinement of the other three roles.  Even today, this convention is maintained, with the qualities of the character allowing for it to offer glances, scratches of the crotch, and slightly unsynchronized movements that break from the formalism of dramatic action.  In this way, monkey roles create a sense of organic realism on what can be considered by some as a rigidly ordered stage.

Queen Kossamak also encouraged other male dancers in the court.  Chheng Phon, a theater artist known for his performances as a clown, who resurrected Khmer shadow puppetry in the 1960s and worked alongside his colleagues to basically invent the genre of Khmer folk dance, was noted to start from ground zero among rows of young female students.[340]  Male members of royalty were encouraged to perform male and demon roles as well.  One day, while rehearsing the role of Preah Vorachhun at the Khmer Arts Theater in Takhmao, a teacher unaffiliated with the company sat and watched me astutely.  She later said to me, “You remind me of being a young girl and watching Mchas Ksatra Sophilu dance in the palace.  He was very flexible and refined just like you.”[341]  Mchas Ksatra Sophilu is the short, perhaps affectionate name of Prince Sisowath Monisisowath.

 

In this time both Queen Kossamak and King Sihanouk played upon existing French accord given to the art form—colonial exotification and romanticizations of antiquity—to fashion a more visible and robust international image of regal tradition.  Taking after the Europeans, they further propagated the palace company as “The Royal Ballet of Cambodia.”  The dancers never spoke to photojournalists or filmmakers personally[342] and performed inside and outside of Cambodia for ritual and political purposes.  For example, the entire troupe toured China in 1956 while others “accompanied [King Sihanouk] to the United States in 1958, to the United Arab Republic and Yugoslavia in 1959, to Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Mongolia and China in 1960, to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia in November-December 1962, to India and China in January 1963, and to France in 1964.”[343]

 

Under the direction of Queen Kossamak, during the reigns of her son King Sihanouk and her husband King Suramarit, Khmer classical dance became a potent symbol of independence.  Through live performances, films, and photographs, the monarchs propagated the royalty’s newly reclaimed power and authority domestically and abroad.  The Queen, who remains an unmatched patron in the modern history of the art form, initiated what some have referred to as a “renaissance” of a sort, and a process of “Khmerization” that fueled a redefinition of existing works as well as the creation of new pieces.  More than ever, the dance and Khmerness now stood in contrast to nearly one hundred years of French domination.  It also, more than ever, stood in opposition to Thainess and the nationalist and imperialist programs from which the latter took life.  Artistic sensibilities associated with the Thai style however—lightness of movement, broader arm angles, low and staccato deav—would remain visible under the direction of Queen Kossamak.  And it was only after the ensuing civil war and genocide that Thai elements were ultimately eliminated in Cambodia, when Khmer dance artists found themselves more than ever to be the ultimate caretakers of their ancient lineage and tradition.

NEXT

[313] Ly, Daravuth and Ingrid Muan.  Cultures of Independence.  Reyum, 2001.  Page vii.

[314] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 213.

[315] Sothavy Khut, direct communication.  2008.

[316] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Soth Sam On, 2008-03-30" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c3ec3120-0380-0131-9dcb-3c075448cc4b

[317] "The Eclipse of Norodom." Phnom Penh Post. The Phnom Penh Post, 8 Jan. 1999. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/eclipse-norodom.

[318] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Sim Muntha, 2008-07-18" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/065e7090-0381-0131-0f58-3c075448cc4b

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

[320] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 212.

[321] Phim-Shapiro, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 105.

[322] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 212.

[323] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 212.

[324] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 212.

[325] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 221.

[326] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 174.

[327] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 175.

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

[329] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 212.

[330] Jory, Patrick. "Problems in Contemporary Thai Nationalist Historiography." Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://kyotoreview.org/issue-3-nations-and-stories/problems-in-contemporary-thai-nationalist-historiography/.

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

[332] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/87ac1510-343a-0131-7bc9-3c075448cc4b

[333] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Sim Muntha, 2008-07-18" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/065e7090-0381-0131-0f58-3c075448cc4b

[334] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Voan Savay and Voeun Amrit" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 10, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/96f3f480-3451-0131-e736-3c075448cc4b

[335] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 218.

[336] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Sim Muntha, 2008-07-24" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/fcd8d6a0-0380-0131-43d9-3c075448cc4b

[337] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Ros Kong, 2009-12-23" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/beeaeea0-0380-0131-135f-3c075448cc4b

[338] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 218.

[339] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 218.

[340] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 242.

[341] Leng, Vanny, direct communication.  August 2008.

[342] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 219.

[343] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 229.