THE KHMER REPUBLIC AND KHMER DANCE BEYOND THE MONARCHY

The Classical Khmer Ballet in Times Square, New York City.  Source: Unknown, used under terms of Fair Use.

A decade after independence, the Kingdom of Cambodia found itself increasingly drawn into the Vietnam War.  And, as a result of Head of State Norodom Sihanouk’s neutrality policies, Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese forces infiltrated Khmer territory.  United States leaders responded with covert airstrikes on Khmer land in 1965, with President Richard Nixon “authoriz[ing] for the first time the use of long range B-52 heavy bombers to carpet bomb Cambodia” in 1969.[344]  The civilian casualties caused outrage amongst rural Khmer people, allowing for the rise of a then fledgling Khmer Rouge.  With the urging of Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, General Lon Nol staged a coup d’etat—deposing Norodom Sihanouk and establishing the Khmer Republic in 1970.

It was in this environment of political instability and uncertainty that the Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia—as the royal dancers had come to be known—taught, rehearsed, and performed.  With many members of the monarchy such as Queen Kossamak in exile, they found themselves without a powerful patron and furthermore became civil servants of the new government.  Training of students was relocated to the University of Fine Arts while company rehearsals remained inside the palace.[345]

 

Of this period, former palace star Menh Kossany has said:

 

"The lives of dancers in the era of King Sihanouk was more prosperous than during the Lon Nol era, because we had a decent salary and even received more payments for performances.  We had food prepared for us already, with every type of dessert, and even got paid more after performances ended.  The King was very gentle with artists and did not let us do anything other than rehearse and take care of ourselves.  But when Lon Nol rose to power, we didn't really rehearse and take care of ourselves because we were busy dodging bullets.  Some dancers ran along with their families while others sought new means of survival. The Lon Nol era was a very difficult time."[346]

Despite this dip in quality of life, the dancers and the art form they practiced continued to occupy a central and celebrated place within Khmer society by playing a key role in the Khmer Republic’s ambassadorial work.  In 1971, they opened the Afro-Asian Music Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  The company garnered rave reviews during their American performances, of which “[s]o called ‘multicultural performance’ . . . was unprecedented in the early 1970s.”[347] 

Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Source: YouTube.

In addition, the company performed abridged versions of Robam Apsara and Robam Moni Mekhala in a televised program hosted by Faubion Bowers.  In it, an eighteen year-old Vorn Savay briefly describes her training to the scholar after performing to the voice of Em Theay and more.  Later, Chea Samy is shown placing the crown of Moni Mekhala on Menh Kossany and the mask of Ream Eyso on Soth Sam On.  This scene, and the ensuing performance of “one of the oldest dances still performed anywhere in the world,” is especially invaluable to me as these latter three women were my teacher’s teachers. 

Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia in Goddess Dancers of Cambodia.  Part 1.  Source: YouTube.

Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia in Goddess Dancers of Cambodia.  Part 2.  Source: YouTube.

The Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia continued on to Canada and later on to Indonesia where it performed in the International Ramayana Festival.  It seems that tensions ran high between Khmer and Thai artists during this performance, of which an “eminent” Thai viewer “condescended” that the Khmer one-hour compression of the Reamker was “‘a good, fast, modern, comprehensive adaptation which told the story and was good for foreigners.’”[348]  This viewer added that “Thais would never do the same thing.”[349]  Despite this, the company would later tour to Thailand in 1974.

 

All of these performances, although not political in content, served a political purpose at the time.  The dancers were used as goodwill ambassadors to nations in which the Khmer Republic sought the aide of in the face of an increasingly robust Khmer Rouge.  But alas, no support was to come and soon artillery shells would land in the palace during company rehearsals and injure a dancer.[350]  Faced with the growing pressures of war, the company began to disintegrate, disbanding altogether when the radical communists took over Phnom Penh and Cambodia.

In the short life of the Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia then, we are presented with an important juncture in Khmer dance history.  The dancers, continuing on with their training and performance without the patronage of royalty, clearly illustrate that Khmer dance could live beyond the walls of the palace.  This reality has always had historical precedence of course, with non-royal elites offering dancers to temples during the Angkor era, traveling and provincial dance groups in the modern era (and before then too), and the troupes of M. Catalone, “‘vice-roi of Battambang,’” and Navy Colonel de Monteiro serving as but a few examples.[351]  This is important, as it shows how Khmer dance can continue to survive despite the realities of a weakened court or during a time such as 1835 – 1841 when there was “neither a resident monarch nor a palace for resident dancers.”[352]

More visibly than ever, the dance began to take the identity of a people’s tradition.[353]  And it had always been one in reality.  Despite what staunch Khmer and even Thai nationalists propagate—the prior for continuity and the latter in an attempt to break the ancient lineage of Khmer dance—it was never the sole possession nor prerogative of royalty.  Calling the art form as a whole “lakhaon preahreacheatrap” (theater of royal treasure) or, in English, the “royal ballet,” is therefore gravely incorrect and dismissive of the very real contributions of many people to the art form’s continuity.  If we are to believe that Khmer dance survived intact in Cambodia from pre-Angkor times to our present day—of which it did—we cannot believe nor perpetuate the myth that it is solely a royal art form.  Toni Shapiro-Phim, for example, notes:

“Though Khmer classical dance is known as dance of the court tradition, Khmer artists acknowledge that the dance’s foundations are to be found among the common people, not among the royal family or among the palace compound.  Most of the dancers and musicians I interviewed concurred that it was the people, in the villages, who originally found meaning and pleasure in the movements, in the stories, in the music.  It was the royalty who had either the resources, and perhaps the foresight, to nurture and encourage the blossoming of the art, or the selfishness to isolate and conceal it (depending on who you ask).”[354]

 

That said, the Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia is an example of how patronage can change, and governments too, but in the end it is—and always has been—a sole group of people who bear the ultimate ability and responsibility of caring for the ancient dance: the artists.  Only artists ourselves can assert any form of ownership over our movement heritage; and only we can claim ownership over the historical, conceptual, spiritual, and physical knowledge living in our individual bodies.

 

In reality, dance during the Khmer Republic was the beginning of a twenty-year period in which there was no monarchy.  It was a moment before a period of inhumane violence, one where Khmer artists would come to prove their love and devotion for their venerable tradition.  In doing so, they would reveal the resilience of art, beauty, and the human spirit in the face of one of the worst tragedies in the history of mankind.  The monarchy would eventually return to Cambodia in 1992.  But even then, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia—named here as a company—would only just be one player in a larger field.  This has always been the case in Cambodia; and in 2013, Brian Seibert of the New York Times precisely noted: “Independence from the state is the trend.”[355]

 

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[344] "Operation Menu." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Menu.

[345] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 234.

[346] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 8.

[347] "BAM Blog: 60 Years of Cambodian Dance at BAM." BAM Blog: 60 Years of Cambodian Dance at BAM. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://bam150years.blogspot.com/2013/05/60-years-of-cambodian-dance-at-bam.html.

[348] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 237.

[349] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 237 - 238.

[350] 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/3.

[351] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 163.

[352] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 147.

[353] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 240.

[354] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 76.

[355] Seibert, Brian. "Dancing Well Is the Best Revenge." The New York Times. The New York Times, 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.