Meeting Monkeys and Dancing with Goddesses
in Cambodia and Hong Kong
The seamlessly organized Dance Advance professional development trip I was fortunate to participate in this February provided the opportunity to experience the way dance tradition is maintained in a country that has lost many of its foremost practitioners through political violence and upheaval, and to pose questions about the relationship of artistic preservation to experimentation. We considered the work of three veteran artists and saw the work of several younger up-and–coming ones. For the Philadelphia artists, sharing our own practice with the dancers of the Khmer Ensemble enabled us to see each other’s defining qualities and preoccupations. It was exhilarating personally to reconnect with “sacred” dance from this part of the world and to witness dance in a Buddhist context, something that as a long-time Buddhist practitioner I had never done.
Our first encounter with Cambodia was through the lens of Angkor Wat, the famed temple complex that is one of the man-made wonders of the world. Toni Shapiro Phim, a native Philadelphian who now resides in Pnom Penh, oriented us there, highlighting the significance of the form of the apsara - the heavenly dancer - rendered by the hundreds on the temple walls. The Cambodian legend of the origin of dance is that as gods and demons held a tug-of-war with a Naga (a powerful serpent), they churned a milky sea which spawned thousands of exquisite dancing goddesses, or apsaras. These became the model for earthly dancers whose role was to be an intercessor between heaven and earth. Dancers in Cambodia were always linked to the king and his court, and were later used as emblems of power by succeeding governments.
Sacred Tradition - In the same way that dance was initially transmitted through divine agents, so a lineage continues through dancers who trained and danced at court. These dancers are utterly faithful to teaching what they themselves remember and have collectively been able to piece together with the few other artists who remain alive (about 90% of artists perished under the Khmer Rouge).
Included in the readings we were given to prepare for the trip were pieces by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro which also address the Cambodian dancer’s ideal of being possessed while dancing, being taken over by former teachers in a way that makes the dancing transcendent. This idea resonates with my own frequent cycling back through all my influences (as seen in my performance and video “50 Moves” and current work “Red Thread”).
Shapiro also wrote at length, and spoke in our presence, about the challenges politically of setting up shop where there is still a monarchy and hidebound bureaucracy. As she is married to an American and spent considerable time in California developing a school she enjoys distinct advantages - raising money for the Khmer Academy and Ensemble in the US while paying out at far lower Cambodian rates. Shapiro and her family are able to live in a family-owned compound with a theater across the road built by Shapiro’s uncle, a former minister of culture. This they use for both training and performances. Thus we saw a Southeast Asian variant on how to make dance economically workable.
The recollection of US’s involvement in this part of the world forms a haunting backdrop for such a visit. While there I read Loung Ung’s “First They Killed My Father,” an account of one child’s experience under the Khmer Rouge. Although the Cambodian genocide was not a direct result of US intervention, it is on a continuum with the immense suffering and barbarism connected with the Vietnam War.
My visceral response on first seeing the Khmer Ensemble dancers, especially knowing that their practice of this dancing rises from the ashes of a collective nightmare, was to melt, to weep. It is sublime, knowing, and serene. The detail and demeanor in each dancer is exquisite. I was reminded also of the deep connection I felt to Indonesian dance following visits to Java and Bali and subsequent study of Javanese court dance over 20 years ago. This trip seemed a coming full circle; an opportunity to recall what I consider precious.
Shapiro is extending beyond the traditional posture, dynamics, roles and costuming of Cambodian dance. She encounters resistance for making what we might consider subtle alterations. She is concerned with questions of preservation vs. experimentation, questioning how best to ensure the ongoing health of classical Cambodian dance which is her basis. I am meanwhile engaged with a form that is commonly pre-occupied with the new, always seeking another kind of stimulation, another look, another departure.
Hong Kong, Kinetic City - Never having visited Hong Kong before, I was enraptured by its multileveled curvilinear roadways and combination of soaring towers and low-to-the-ground urban bustle. We were able again to contrast the old and the new, the colonial city with the up-to-the-minute metropolis, and to encounter many versions of “hybrid” dance. Witnessing the work of Ea Sola, who has achieved significant international stature, and hearing her expound her ideas in a teatime get-together seemed a largely intellectual exercise compared to the highly emotional response the Cambodians engendered. I was also surprised that I wasn’t especially grabbed by the explorations by young Asian choreographers on the Asia-Pacific Dance Platform during the Festival. Perhaps this was because their forms seemed heavily impacted by Western ideas about structure and material but didn’t have much edge or clarity or fullness of development.
A true Renaissance artist, Danny Yung met with us and showed tapes of work old and new. Here I felt the brilliance of an artist committed to mining the essential in his materials and discovering resonance in elements from disparate sources. I was deeply impressed by his approach to melding Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Peking Opera gestures. This made stunning theater, outwardly simple, but infinitely refined. I look forward to learning much more about this artist and plan to attend a performance of the work that so impressed me in Rotterdam this coming May.
The trip highlighted how each artist whose work we viewed is the product of their own particular cultural context. It was always interesting to note which aspects of the work seemed part of the practitioner’s home culture and which were influences from the west, more or less skillfully integrated. Sharing the experience with Philadelphia colleagues Kun-Yang Lin, Amand Miller
and Tobin Rothlein brought clarity regarding our own foundations, evolution, and differences.