TWO TREES OF ONE ROOT? AN ANALYSIS OF KHMER AND THAI CLASSICAL DANCES

As we look into Khmer and Thai dance for their stylistic differences, it is important to note one thing: although some dances are certainly very old, none of them are exactly the same as when they first took life.  The dances of the repertoires, much like the art forms, have been shaped by changing social values, economic realities, cultural contexts, and political situations.  Very importantly, they have undergone a constant process of redefinition under the eyes and visions of individual artists.  As my teacher Sophiline recalls, not even sacred works in Cambodia are immune to this: 

“I remember Soth Sam On telling me that in the 1960s the artist Hang Thun Hak asked her if she could add a more threatening gesture for Ream Eyso before he throws the axe at Moni Mekhala.  She did, it strengthened the theatricality of the dance, and so that perfect gesture has been incorporated into every performance of the piece, sacred or secular, ever since.”[246]

So, as they say, change is the only constant—and I agree—but I would also add that a certain spirit remains intact and alive in this process of evolution.  In fact, this gradual refinement is what invigorates the art forms and keeps them fresh, with each generation trying to push their traditions towards a higher state of meaning and beauty.

As discussed before, the earliest graphic evidence of Khmer classical dance comes from temples of the pre-Angkor and Angkor periods.  These depictions vary in their degree of realism due to limitations in space and medium but also in their adherence to cross-cultural iconographic conventions associated with dance.  In short, some of these images are compatible to the realism of a photograph while others are more stylized transformations of their subjects like an expressionist painting.  Even Khmer and Thai mural paintings, with roots in Angkorean bas-reliefs and clearly possessing a relationship to the dance, do not always faithfully document the dance tradition.

With this said, the formal qualities of Angkorean iconography—the arching of the back, the curve in the fingers, the angle of the arms in relation to the rest of the body, the four major hand gestures, the poses for sitting and flying and more—have a clear relationship to Khmer classical dance as we know it.  And, when looking at both of these art forms, even when there is a sense of leaning to one side, you’ll find a centered, uplifted quality in the subject’s or dancer’s body.  This is true in a carving of Vishnu on Garuda at Angkor Wat, in the first photographs of Khmer dance (which captured a troupe of dancers from Battambang province during the reign of King Norodom), and amongst Khmer dance troupes throughout Cambodia and in the diaspora today.     

Vishnu on Garuda at Angkor Wat. Notice that he is in a dancing gesture.  Twelfth century.  By DoktorMax (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Dancers in rehearsal at a provincial theater in Battambang circa 1885.  From Earth in Flower by Paul Cravath, courtesy DatAsia Press.

Dancers in rehearsal in Battambang circa 1885.  Notice the all-female pin peat orchestra directly correlating to the sixteenth-century Angkor Wat wall paintings, which have their roots in the earlier relief depictions of female musicians at Angkor.  From Earth in Flower by Paul Cravath, courtesy DatAsia Press.

Male dancer from the ninth-century temple of Bakong, executing kbach chak with a vajra likely in left hand.  Ninth century.  Courtesy of Johann Reinhart Zeiger, Angkorguide.net.

In Thai dance however, this centered quality is broken by a deep bending in the torso and leaning of the head.  And, as I mentioned earlier, this may have resulted from the adoption of costumes of the Rattanakosin era which greatly covered the body, forcing the dancer to execute angles of greater extreme and degree in order to show the movement of the body.  However, a ninth-century carving of a male dancer executing kbach chak at the temple of Bakong already demonstrates this extreme bending in the torso, illustrating the fact that there were likely many styles of Khmer dance during the Angkor era that were made singular by distance and differences in artistic vision.  Kbach chak is still used in Khmer dance today.  And the aesthetic sensibility captured by the carving was or was not (re)adopted by artists at the Khmer court and in Cambodia, depending on their artistic lineage and individual tastes.

Interestingly, in the photograph of Khmer dancers from 1885, we can see that the female characters opened one knee when standing with their knees bent.  This immediately conjures the images of female dancers sculpted at Angkor who almost always have their knees bent and open, revealing the fact that certain Angkorean dance conventions—along with the Angkorean dance tradition itself—survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Unlike our Thai counterparts, Khmer artists have closed the knees of female characters today, creating a sense of petite femininity that more dynamically contrasts with the movements of male and demon characters.

Another reason for the off-centered quality in Thai dance results from the music.  Sam and Miller have noted that Thai musicians consider the khong wong yai (Khmer: kong vong thom, a low-pitched circular gong) to carry “the most fundamental form of the melody” whereas Khmers believe the purest form of a melody is in the human voice and instruments that imitate the voice best.[247]  Further, they note that “Thai language is tonal and Khmer is not.  This difference triggers totally different procedures in generating melody in relation to text.”[248]  It is for this reason that Thai music has an extended quality to it, one that makes the dance have a more pronounced quality of stillness that is then punctured by staccato bodily gestures.

 

In contrast, Khmer dance has a more consistent, grounded fluidity that is mirrored in the music.  The pin peat traditionally plays with a sense of fullness in the orchestra, rarely shifting in tempo, volume, or allowing for musicians to stand out as soloists.  On the other hand, Thai music can shift greatly in speed, volume, and instrumentation, lending to a more layered, disjunctive relationship between sound and dancing, one that can be seen most in purely musical sections.

The music affects these two styles of dancing in another way as well.  A Thai friend who studied dance with me in Long Beach noted the strong presence of drums in Khmer music.  He then went on to say his “perception of dance has completely changed since studying Khmer dance.  There’s a gait, a slightness [that he sees in] Thai dance [now].”[249]

This difference in weight is mirrored in the way that Khmer dance was depicted in stone bas-reliefs whereas Thai dance came to be reflected most in its tradition of mural painting.  And, when we look at things in this general manner, we can understand my teacher Sophiline when she says that “everything in Thai art is elongated.”[250]  This quality is reflected in Thai script, music, architecture, and dance, of which the Khmer forms they are derived from are much more compact, condensed, and rounded.

But let’s look at some actual dancing to find more differences between the two styles.

Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso re-staged by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, performed by Sophiline Arts Ensemble for International Women's Rights Day. Source: YouTube.

Mekhala Ramasun performed by Thai artists, precluded by excerpt of Rabam Si Bot.  Please view Mekhala Ramasun excerpt beginning at 9:34. Source: YouTube.

First off, both of these performances are shortened versions of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso (Thai: Mekhala Ramasun).  Although there is perhaps ten years or more between them, I believe they clearly exemplify the differing values that shape Khmer and Thai classical dances.  Additionally, through the power of film and text from the twentieth century, approximately twenty years after the death of King Norodom, we know that these contemporary performances are indeed similar in approach to that of their modern predecessors.  Old documentary footage of “White Lotus” shows Thai dancers running in a pedestrian manner as they flee from the rage of Ramasun in 1929 (addressed later).  Whereas Ted Shawn, who saw Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso in the Khmer palace during the reign of King Sisowath in 1925, noted:

“A charming dance figure was worked out between the masked villain, the beautiful princess and the ensemble.  The princess had a blue crystal ball, symbol of something which the villain wished to take from her.  In a most formal figure the pursuit was carried on.  The ensemble was arranged in a line of pairs down the centre of the stage; the villain facing the whole line from the head, and the princess hiding behind the first couple.  With rhythmic beating of the feet, almost like a simple Nautch step, the villain approached the first couple and formally parted them to get to the princess.  The parted couple ran outward in wide circles to the edges of the dance floor and let the villain through only to discover that the princess had slipped through and behind the second couple.  The figure was then repeated, the separated dancers joining the first couple, the princess slipping behind the third couple and so on, until the whole line was separated.  This entire figure was repeated with the variation of the villain pushing one couple to one side and the next to the other side instead of separating them; and again making a rush at the whole group and dividing the twenty dancers into two groups of ten which ran apart in two large circles and then came back together, one group striking the hands of the opposite group and all giving a light girlish scream as they struck—but always the princess eluded him.”[251]

So even though the first video is Neak Kru Sophiline’s re-working of the traditional piece, much of the choreography and choreographic concepts have remained the same.  The ensemble of dancers simultaneously play as tevoda and cloud spirits as they do in the traditional version; and the movements for Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso are essentially the same as before.  The difference lies largely in Neak Kru Sophiline’s concerted effort to activate the ensemble dancers so as to create dynamic floor patterns and degrees of leveling, as well as her decision to use fans in this section (which are traditionally used in the closing dance only).

When looking at the ensemble dancers in the video, you will see that their movements are based on "formal" unison and harmony.  They are often staged in balanced, ordered floor patterns that inscribe a sort of sacred geometry and geography onto the stage.  This same approach is seen in the traditional version, although in much more “rigid” north-south and east-west rows.  With all of this in mind, it seems as if all of the female characters and all of the male characters might just be different expressions of one feminine and one masculine.  And when they hold the purple and yellow fans, they become symbolic of negative and positive energy respectively.  Even singular characters such as Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso seem to have a symbolic quality, each representing feminine and masculine, good will and bad will, lightning and thunder, compassion and violence, power and force, calm and rage, vision and blindness, enlightenment and ignorance.

The Thai version of this drama has a particularly different feeling.  The ensemble of dancers—dressed in many varying colors—have their own unique identities as characters.  Some smile and others grin; some engage with one another as others engage with Mekhala.  This creates a lively scene that one can readily associate with a crowded party, one in which people of all demeanors carry on multiple conversations.  This human-ness is mirrored in the way that dancers seem to break out of dance as they scream and run from the rage of Ramasun.  Even Mekhala, pointedly teasing and taunting her adversary, makes us realize the comic effect intended for a human audience.

Elements such as this reveal the way that Thai classical dance is a theater-driven tradition.  This fact is further evident in the rising and falling of particularly human emotions, in the way that Mekhala at times places her hands into the gesture for fear as she runs from Ramasun and as she second-guesses herself in her attempt to hide from him.  Perhaps the goddess’s fear can also be seen as a reflection of a woman’s place in a male-dominated artistic sphere and society, one that is echoed in Thai choreographies of Supana Matcha Hanuman.

In Cambodia, where the female expression of classical dance is the standard bearer, Moni Mekhala never expresses any fear.  She is aware of her aggressor's pursuit and contemplates the rage and violence of Ream Eyso, unfazed by and unafraid of his threats, even irking him on to break his concentration.  His attacks are met with composed evasions and it is the power and knowledge emitted from her crystal that cause the tevoda to scream and brings the demon to the ground.  This image of a strong woman can be seen again in Khmer depictions of Sovann Machha Hanuman (Thai: Supana Matcha Hanuman), who flirtatiously and (half) jokingly responds to Hanuman’s woos with, “Don’t come here showing off and claiming things before you meet danger in your life.”  And even then she plays hard to get.

In short, a profound difference in Khmer and Thai dance lies in a dance-based approach versus a respective theater-based approach.  This is not to say that Khmer robam lacks theatricality or that Thai khon is not dance.  However, these two approaches create strikingly different results in performance due to the inherent values of each discipline.  In dance, whose ancient roots are in spirit possession and the supranatural, the performer channels and embodies a deity or state of being in her or his own individual body, in a way that only she or he can.  In theater, or in its modern manifestations, the performer assumes the identity of a character, is traditionally focused most on creating an illusion of realism.  These two differing approaches to the dance form greatly distinguished Khmer and Thai styles of dance—even at a time when the Khmer court felt Thai influence most.

But let us examine two more performances to further illustrate my point.

Reamker performed by Khmer artists at an international Ramayana Festival at Angkor Wat.  Source: YouTube.

Ramakian performed by Thai artists.  Source: YouTube.

These two clips, both depictions of the battle at Langka from the Ramayana, further illustrate the inherent differences in approaching dance in both Cambodia and Thailand.  The 1996 performance by Khmer artists demonstrate the unity of movement and music that is valued in the robam tradition, one in which dancers are but different expressions of one ideal.  Conversely, while watching Thotsakan (Khmer: Tossakan, or Tossamok or Reab, Sanskrit: Ravana) in the Thai performance, his haughty turning and walking away has a more actorly quality and his hand gestures seem to be extensions of the narrated dialogue as opposed to a symbolic miming of it.  Just as in the prior clip, the Thai ensemble dancers seem to have a more individual quality in their stage presence as multiple “conversations” occur on stage at the same time.  Furthermore, the Thai demonstrate their preference for dramatic theater once more in the way that Phra Ram (Khmer: Preah Ream, Sanskrit: Rama) is at times under the strength of Thotsakan, and in moments of surprise like when Thotsakan nearly sneaks a strike upon Phra Lak (Khmer: Preah Leak, Sanskrit: Lakshmana).  In fact, if you watched the Thai performance in its entirety, you will realize the emphasis placed on spectacle as illustrated by elaborate sets, the use of video, and dancers who are suspended through the air to simulate flight.  In contrast, the fact that Preah Ream is never at the power of Reab in the Khmer performance is reflective of sixteenth- to seventeenth-century attitudes towards the protagonist as evidenced in the Ramakerti I:

“The image of [Preah Ream’s] high [Buddhist] mission is not even upset by the actual battle against the demons.  There is no need for him to work out a minute strategy and to perform repeated spectacular feats of arms.  A cakravarti-king, he radiates power (tejah) with which he infuses his followers to gain the submission of the demons and finally the Victory over evil.”[252]

It is interesting to note that the dancing in the Thai performance is decidedly different from that of Mekhala Ramasun and Supana Matcha Hanuman above.  The bending in the torso is less extreme and the angle of the arms are more compact, thus creating the centered quality that is valued in Khmer dance and sculpture.  Even Thotsakan’s body has the fullness that is ideal of a Khmer demon character—one that is naturally achieved when the Chaktumok costumes are worn by a fuller-bodied woman. 

A Khmer dance artist once said to me, “Now Thai dance and music is very centered because they have access to [Khmer] materials online.”[253]  Another said, "Now they are starting to deav high like us."[254]  This latter point was driven home when I was asked by a teacher at Thailand's Suphanburi College, "What do you guys do to deav high?"[255]  Furthermore, that line between what we distinguish between "Khmer" and "Thai" styles of robam (and khaol) becomes especially murky when considering the male dancer depicted at Bakong.  

 

My point here is not that Thai artists copy Khmer artists nor that Khmer artists are superior if Thai artists were to do so.  But we must ask ourselves the critical questions in this moment, especially since they can be a source of tension between both communities.  What will be the difference between Khmer and Thai classical dances as the traditions become ever more similar?  And, in such a case, is it fair to call them two traditions?  Or is it more accurate to say that they are two schools of one living tradition, one which—through iconographic, linguistic, and epigraphic evidence—we know to have its roots amongst the Khmer people?

In any case, at the end of the day, we have only this fact: there are good and bad performers on both sides and successful and unsuccessful approaches on both ends.  The fact is that beauty exists everywhere and it is capable of growing everywhere.  I bring this up instead to show how both dances have continued to inform one another throughout history and will continue to do so.  Because, whether through love or war, exchange happens in two directions.  In our present world of digital platforms and technologies, of increasing interconnectedness, it is interesting to see that the values of separate schools are beginning to be in dialogue once more after decades of pronounced disconnect.  And, even then, they can only retain their singular beauty and character.

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[246] Ok, Prumsodun and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro.  “A Teacher’s Gift.”  Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso.  Ed. Prumsodun Ok.  CreateSpace Self Publishing, 2013.  Pages 15 - 26.

[247] Miller, Terry E., and Sam Ang Sam.  “The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand: A Study of Distinctions”.  Ethnomusicology, Vol. 39, No. 2. (Spring – Summer, 1995), Pages 229 - 243.

[248] Miller, Terry E., and Sam Ang Sam.  “The Classical Musics of Cambodia and Thailand: A Study of Distinctions”.  Ethnomusicology, Vol. 39, No. 2. (Spring – Summer, 1995), Pages 229 - 243.

[249] Name has been omitted for reasons of sensitivity.  2014.

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

[251] Shawn, Ted. Gods Who Dance. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1929, Pages

[252] Pou, Saveros.  Selected Papers on Khmerology.  Reyum Publishing, 2003.  Page 244.

[253] Name has been omitted for sensitivity issues.  August 2014.

[254] Name has been omitted for sensitivity issues.  June 2016.

[255] Name has been omitted for sensitivity issues.  June 2016.