DRESSED IN CAMBODIAN REGALIA and wearing a highly-stylized tail, Ouk Solichumnith appears as Sovann Macha. Her wrists turn softly as she kicks a leg back and upward past her waist; her body undulates as if moving through a heavy primordial fluid. In this manifestation, she is the golden fish—Queen of the Seas in the Reamker epic—and she patrols her subterranean domain with an uncompromising technical precision that is paired with a serpentine grace. She is confronted and wooed by Hanuman—son of the God of Wind—and the two retreat off-stage for a moment of intimate privacy that clears the path for war. The dance ends, the music stops, and the YouTube window provides options to replay the video or watch related clips.
Let’s see what people think: “I am CAMBODIAN. Proud to be Cambodian. I hate thai People. They are fuck!!”
“that is 100% TRUTH ASIAN NIGGERS = CAMBODIA DARK AND UGLY FUCKERS YOU PEOPLE ARE”
These unfortunate, misguided comments posted beneath this video—something like an infectious disease in digital communities such as YouTube—have nothing to do with the actual performance of course. However, they speak to the complexities of the art’s history and contemporary practice and render the dancer as a soldier of identity, the dance a battleground of ethnic and nationalist politics.
As a Cambodian classical dancer and choreographer, it pains me to see such ignorance and hatred breeding alongside the art to which I devote my life. And as a child of refugees who was born and raised in the United States, I am wary of identifying as Cambodian the way such users do. This stands true even if I see myself as a carrier of a heritage that is one of that nation’s most potent symbols of identity. In order to better understand this ethnocentrism, let me share some concrete historical moments of this tradition, a tradition that has been passed on orally and through physical embodiment for over a thousand years.
Under the leadership of then Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. Like many of their fellows in other newly independent nations—“imagined communities” whose borders were demarcated by former colonial powers—the new leaders sought to redefine the country’s image on the stage of international politics. In Cambodia, this included a surge of creativity in popular music, cinema, and dance that would be seen as a second “golden age” since the height of Angkor.
Cambodian classical dance itself experienced a process of aesthetic and technical revision, codification, and standardization that continues to inform dance-making in the country today. In fact, many of today’s most popular classical dances were choreographed during this period between 1953–1975. For example, Princess Bopha Tevi often performed for visiting dignitaries as Mera—Queen of the Apsara and mother of the Khmer race—emerging from the walls of an Angkorian temple to play in a celestial garden in Robam Apsara [Dance of Celestial Dancers]. Often displaying ideal images of heavenly beauty, short dance works such as this traced the newly formed nation of Cambodia to its roots in the civilization of Angkor and served to validate the reign of the new king.
Yet this surge of creativity was not to last. In 1975, a group of communist radicals known as the Khmer Rouge took over the country. They sought to create an egalitarian agrarian society, making life horrific for anyone who showed signs of privilege. Cambodian classical dancers suffered during this regime due to their ties with the royal court and, in a matter of four years, an estimated ninety percent of the art form’s practitioners died of disease, starvation, and execution. A Vietnamese invasion brought about the fall of the regime and saw the dislocation of Cambodian people and their practices all over the world. These displaced communities sought to maintain their identity in a larger social fabric through classical dance: replacing gold crowns for ones of sequined cardboard, using tinsel in place of flower garlands in the earliest days of resettlement.
I see these hateful comments as intergenerational translations of Cambodia’s post-independence political strategies as well as a subculture’s attempt to find a sense of meaning, value, and empowerment. Unfortunately, this does not always manifest healthily and what you get are proud nationalists—some who have never been to Cambodia or Thailand, mostly unequipped with the knowledge of history—arguing about what dance is best, and therefore, what nation.
A user writes beneath a posting of Robam Chun Por [Dance of Blessing], misnamed as Robam khmer [Dance of Khmer], “I heard that the Thai stole Khmer culture. I wonder if this is true.” He receives fourteen votes up.
Reflecting the other side of the argument another user writes (on a separate video post featuring a performance of Robam Sovann Macha [Dance of Sovann Macha] by Cambodian artists on Thai television), “From 1780–1867, Khmer royal court, which had had no dance and music culture left anymore, begged Thai royal court to send them some Thai art teachers because they wanted to ‘RESTART’ royal arts to become live in their court again. Thai royal court felt very glad that its colony would like to have Thai arts, so, send some dance and music teachers to Khmer court as they requested. Therefore, in the present days, the so-called royal Khmer dances, Lakhon (Khon) or music are all copied from Thai.”
These two comments reflect well the general belief in both camps. The first comment references Siam’s—predecessor of the Thai nation state—conquering of Angkor in 1431, which at that point was the seat of the most influential cultural and political powers in mainland Southeast Asia. It is generally believed by scholars that they did what the Romans did to the ancient Greeks: conquered the nation and adopted the culture. The modern Thai alphabet is derived from Khmer script; it is believed that much of Thai royal dance, music, ritual, and religion was derived from the Khmer court which was—in popular image—carried away in full to the seat of the Siamese throne in Ayutthaya.
The latter comment speaks to a “dark age” of Cambodian history in which its leaders juggled alliances between its ever-growing neighbors and a period about which few written documents exist. And perhaps, most importantly, it was a time in which French discourse constructed and portrayed the modern Khmer people as descendants of a once noble and learned race now in a state of irreparable decline—a belief that sometimes manifests itself today.
In a history where written sources have largely obeyed the laws of time—there’s only so long palm leaf manuscripts will hold in tropical heat—perhaps it would serve us to take a look at these ideas with more intimate eyes.
The notion that Khmer influence of the Siamese court begins with the conquering of Angkor is questionable as these were societies involved in the trade of goods and ideas. Dancers—as spiritual capital who were dedicated to temples, sometimes numbering over a thousand for one during the time of Angkor—were a part of this exchange as well. For example, the first Lao kingdom of Lan Xang was founded by a prince living in the Angkorian court named Fa Ngum. With the support of the Khmer king Jayavarman Paramesvara, he married the king’s daughter named Nang Keo (whose Khmer name is unknown) and was given an army to return to his homeland to gain control. As the story is told, Nang Keo brought with her the Buddhism that replaced the Brahmanic practices of the Khmer court as well as a troupe of dancers. Today’s Fon Nang Keo [Dance of Nang Keo], a Lao classical dance work, references this history of cultural dialogue and exchange through out the region.
To further complicate these dual understandings, Chheng Phon, the Minister of Culture after the Khmer Rouge regime, opposes the perhaps slightly romanticized image of an entire court being carried away. When asked in Paul Cravath’s Earth in Flower, he pragmatically suggests that some went to Ayutthaya while others went south to where the capital was moved.
A prominent choreographer of Thai classical dance once said to me, “Ah, I love to be in Cambodia. The dancers are very good there because the spirit of the dance is very strong there. The old teachers told me that if I wanted to see real Thai dance that I should go to Cambodia because in Thailand everything is changing.”
I don’t agree with the sentiment of the choreographer’s old teachers: things become redefined and localized in the process of translation and exchange, much of the Cambodian classical dance repertoire has been reshaped during the post-independence and post-Khmer Rouge era, and it is the nature of all arts and traditions to evolve. However, I value his feelings of camaraderie as he reveals that he and I, respectively working in Thai and Cambodian classical dance, share the same community in our belief in the “spirit of the dance.” I would be shocked to learn that the YouTube users whose comments propagate hatred and ignorance beneath these videos are aware that the Thai and Cambodian classical dancers they use as weapons of identity worship the same teacher spirit. They pray and offer themselves in dance to Phra Khru Ruesi [“Lord Teacher, the Ascetic” in Thai] and Lok Ta Maha Eisey [“Grandfather, the Great Ascetic” in Khmer], the equivalent to Bharata Muni of Indian classical arts. In this sense, Thai and Cambodian classical dancers, when practicing in their highest and fullest capacities, belong to a spiritual body and place that transcends the borders of nation, race, and politics in our day. When they execute the most sacred works of their repertoires, they invoke their ancient community and lineage. Their choreographed bodies carry the prayers of the people around them and deliver a health and harmony, peace and order, truth and transcendence that is in line with divine will.
Perhaps then it is the responsibility of Thai and Cambodian classical dancers to reclaim their co-opted tools from the larger society in which they exist and change the way in which people understand and appreciate their art forms. Until then, what ensues is the denigration of a way of living in and thinking about the world, a dumbing-down of heritages, and an attack on a human kind of good. In the case of YouTube where people inflict violence unto others with distasteful and uneducated comments, Thai and Cambodian classical dance will cease to have real value. The ritual dances that reference peoples and places on an archetypal, universally human scale become gestures of separation, definition, and categorization tied to a history of colonialism.
Do these users not want the things they love to have the fullest value? Is being Cambodian or Cambodian American enough to assert ownership of Cambodian classical dance? And, Lok Ta Maha Eisey—man of whom all knowledge of the arts emanate—are there borders, is there a limit to your knowledge and love?