It is 4.06 AM. My eyes tell me that I need to sleep but lying in bed is proving useless as thoughts race through my head. I was in Cambodia for ten days, just two days ago and have brought so much back with me. New knowledge, new costumes, new energy, and the pop song that currently plays on repeat right now, “Besdong Chhkuot” [Crazy Heart] whose music video depicts a “snaiha khos thhomacheat” [love contrary to nature]. It first came to me like a sad homosexual dream, almost too vivid and visible to be real, as I awoke to the sound of my friends’ – a few members of the Khmer Arts Ensemble – voices delivering its all at once sad and true and brave words in the dark karaoke bar we sought to ring in the night (I’m not a fan of this genre of music so I fell asleep, having just come out of rehearsal).
Despite the fact that the music video speaks little to me as a filmmaker, the song form unadventurous and sappy, and the artist not lesbian, this work resonates so strongly for me. Call it the disrespectful commercialization of a subcultural experience or sincere support of a people misunderstood by the larger society, this song brings visibility to a community whose hearts are drawn to what is unaccepted, navigating through a society that is especially culturally and politically tumultuous. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time a popular American artist sang so openly of homosexuality. Yet perhaps more interesting to me – as a budding man, with no desire to be a woman, who will dance as one – is the act of gendering in this video. The filmmaker illustrates the artist’s masculinity through dark colors, reserved body gestures, and an emotional restraint expected of men in Cambodian society (and anyone in a Buddhist society). However, the construction of gender is most effectively communicated through the depiction of objects worn: a black watch in the opening sequence, a white tie set against a black shirt, a belt, and glasses only worn when in the presence of her more feminine lover. This is not very different from the approach I have used to transform myself in to Neang Sovann Atmani of Robam Lom Arom [Dance of Emotion’s Caress].
I originally planned to give Neang Sovann Atmani life in a world in complete harmony with the Cambodian classical dance tradition: elaborate crowns and jewelry that catch light even in darkness are worn, powerful notes of the pin peat orchestra ringing in the air. Yet as I progressed further and further, I found the lyrics written to be too samanh [mundane] due to my limited Khmer language capacity, too base for articulating my emotions and concerns. The work was becoming less and less true with each gesture and word added. And to top it all off, the process of creating Robam Lom Arom opened up a painful host of memories revolving around my training as a dancer that challenged my ability to continue my practice.
Four years ago, as an eighteen year old boy, returning to Long Beach after a semester of school in San Francisco where I grew exponentially as an artist and human being, I can remember Neak Kru Sophiline, frustrated and demanding from the side of the stage, “Man! You are a man, Prum!” Embarrassment consumed my form at not being to embody the ideals of the art and larger society; a sad pain grew in every inch of my body at not being able to please my teacher who gave me the things my mother could not.
The next summer, I came back to Long Beach to teach filmmaking but found myself in the dance studio once more. I danced real slow, stretching out each gesture, to achieve the fluidity of the dancers I observed in videos (Ouk Solichumnith was my favorite). Outside of group rehearsals, when not working with over forty high school youth, when not visiting my father who I feared would die in the emergency room, I found myself alone in the studio at 2 AM. I practiced the male and demon roles assigned to me along with the female roles I observed during open rehearsals and on the television screen. The hair on the back of my neck rose and goosebumps formed on my skin at the thought of the kru, the teacher spirits, who should strike me down for my transgression at any given moment. The sensation of fear was strongest when I executed a movement – male or female – that was not of my own, that which eliminated my identity most.
I began to understand the differences between male and female – questioning them – through these solitary rehearsals shrouded in fear of the kru who seemed to be watching so close by, ready to drop the sky upon me should I let down my guard. As the cultural-physical expectations became more clear, I found myself thinking: all men don’t move this way nor do they have to and I have known plenty of wonderful women who cannot be reduced to thin-framed, demure princesses trapped to play in a tame and fragile garden. I certainly was not a man of Cambodia’s royal court and decided I could not fully understand its ideals. I began to bend and break the form, pushing each gesture and pulling every movement a little more and more in a manner that felt so very right inside of me.
Yet through all of this I knew that I loved Cambodian classical dance very much. It was something that lived deep inside of me, not always easy to understand. I tried running away from the politics of gender by swinging my hips wildly in a dance studio at San Francisco’s Mission Cultural Center where Maisa Duke – by far the most skilled sambista on the West Coast (and friends who have been to Brazil say there is no one who can match her in the dance) – came to me, one of her most promising students after only two months of once-a-week rehearsals, and said, “Your samba is very good but don’t swing your arms out. You are a man.” She proceeded to teach me what was deemed appropriate.
In all of my training as a dancer, my teachers have been female and my fellow students have been rows of women ranging widely in age, maturity, class, physique, and race seeking the richness of their art (whatever they deemed that to be). As a Cambodian classical dancer, I am confronted with many images of what it means to be a woman. Mera, queen of the apsaras, mother of the Cambodian race, in her demure and transcendent purity plays in a celestial garden; Moni Mekhala, clever and intelligent, subdues a demon that instills fear into the deities with her powerful crystal ball; Neang Rachana, master of a penetrating eye, gives her love to a man deemed black, ugly, and animal by her society; Onn Choan and Neang Nearadey pick flowers with their servants in a garden; mischievous kennarey (kinnari), half bird and half woman, use their beauty to charm and deceive a hermit into killing a spider that interrupted their play (thus breaking his sacred vows); Sorphanaka [Surphanaka], lustful demon of a woman, crudely disrespects herself and those around her for the love of Preah Ream [Prince Rama] who will have nothing to do with her. Neang Sovann Atmani embodies the qualities of all these women as we, as human beings, have the potential to do both good and evil, heal and harm, propagate truth and deceit. In order to fully transform myself into this character, waiting painfully in the stillness of the night for her husband, at the mercy of her memories, I have chosen to draw upon the image of the first Cambodian woman, Neang Neak.
The female progenitor of the oldest known Cambodian founding story – there are many – Neang Neak (also known as Neang Soma) is the daughter of serpent sovereigns who rule beneath the sea. Her race, masters of the waters, have the ability to take the form of humans. One day, a Brahmin of foreign origin named Preah Thaong (also known as Kaundinya) sailed into Neang Neak’s domain, guided by a dream. The parties proceeded to war with one another; Neang Neak is defeated and forced into marriage. Her father, the Serpent King, conjugates the once warring people and destined lovers by sucking the waters of the ocean to reveal a land known as Kambujadesa in which they begin a new race and kingdom. After some time, Neang Neak had to return to her subterranean home and Preah Thaong followed her by holding onto her tail. One of the oldest and most sacred melodies of Cambodian classical dance was heard during the new king’s time in this mystic land and this journey proved to have ritual import not only in the dance but in marriage practice as well.
It has been many years since I have been to a Cambodian wedding but I remember them to be lengthy affairs, lasting days, of bright colors, food, and sound. There seemed to be a period in my childhood in which my elder siblings were being married off one right after the other, bringing the kin, neighbors, and townsfolk through our home to help clean, cook, and bless the bride and groom. The latter two, usually brought together by arrangement, went through many different costume changes through out the process. They were usually made to look like nobility in all of their formal and semi-formal affairs but my favorite outfits were always those resembling the regalia of the royal court, where the dance costumes seen today were developed.
In this manifestation, the couple wore pleated skirts of silk known as sampot. The jewelry on the hands and ankles are both the same; any differing jewelry only varies in size and pattern as a marker of gender. The groom wears a frock of gold netting over a long-sleeved, straight-collared white shirt whereas the bride differentiates herself by sporting a tiara and sbaiy, a sequined sash covering the upper half of the torso and leaving the right shoulder bare in front and back, falling down below the hips in the back. At the end of this segment of the wedding, the groom holds the end of the sbaiy, much like the way Preah Thaong held onto Neang Neak’s tail, following his wife into the chosen room that is their costume changing abyss.
The sbaiy is a stylized representation of a serpent’s tail and defining trait of femininity in the dress of the royal court, classical dance, and marriage. For Robam Lom Arom, I have chosen to transform myself into woman by first drawing upon the outdated practice of applying white paint onto the body in order to hide my personal history written on the skin (color, scars, the touch of sun), becoming a blank slate that functions much like a film screen waiting to reflect the light that is projected onto it back into the world. Having completely removed the hair from my body and painted myself white, I hope to have elevated myself to a fetus-like asexuality; I gender myself woman with the sbaiy which harkens back to the first, to the primordial Cambodian woman that is, according to another Performing Diaspora artist, when on stage at the first work-in-progress showing in San Francisco, “like a spirit”.
Given the minimal stylization – heavy and tight costumes are removed leaving the skin nearly bare – I have chosen to stylize the other elements of the dance work as well. Instead of the melodious pin peat orchestra, I have combined environmental sounds, narration, and song to make a still and quiet world of waiting. Video will be employed to not only illustrate the narration (and fill the spaces around it) but as a means of literalizing memory’s caress of Neang Sovann Atmani. The photographic image, whether moving or still, is a personal and communal history and memory and Neang Sovann Atmani succumbs to its very real and soft touch on her skin, so light and warm.
After my plane landed in Cambodia, I immediately went into rehearsals with the Khmer Arts Ensemble at the Khmer Arts Theater, sitting on the grounds of former Minister of Culture Chheng Phon’s Center for Culture and Vipassana in Takmao. The dancers, young women roughly my age, welcomed me with warm smiles and waves as I approached them; they mocked me as I sat at Neak Kru Poy’s (Penh Yom) feet with my hands in prayer. “Hey guys! What a wonderful student!” they laughed, mimicking and exaggerating my gesture of respect.
I sat down by Neak Kru Poy and Ming Ly (Neak Kru Sophiline’s elder sister who is the senior vocalist of the company), next to the musicians on the southern end of the pavilion and watched the dancers rehearse Robam Dao [Dance of Swords]. Although I had never seen this dance before I found myself singing along so very easily; this is repeated when they rehearse Robam Takeung in which matching male-female (character) pairs dance with scarves wrapped around the waist, occasionally holding it in front of them (they rehearsed this dance empty-handed during my entire stay) and clapping to illustrate a harmony in their courtship.
Veasna, the company manager, approached us and informed Neak Kru Poy and Ming Ly that I wanted to study neang [female roles] for this trip. I wondered how Bong Sna, as I called her in respect and affection, knew this and was so afraid of the women’s rejection of my request. They encouraged me to get up and rehearse with all of the female role dancers, without a second thought or disapproval, “Chhuy Chhay Chmar has very good choreography. Hurry up, they’re starting.” Thus began my intense rehearsals, dancing female, male, and demon dances back to back, without rest. I could feel the eyes of my fellow dancers, full of supportive admiration, upon me; Neak Kru Poy observed me in a quiet surprise as I rehearsed a segment of Preah Sang’s solo, singing the lyrics even, of which I had very little exposure to the year before. I remembered choreography quickly, asked questions about things I did not understand, and even shot jokes back at the dancers who, despite being otherworldly in performance, are the masters of a playful and active humor.
And then there was that time Neak Kru Poy, bless her heart, came to correct my movements: one hand planted just enough on my lower back, the other pulling down my torso in the front. “Bend your knees more, kon [my child]”.
My ten days progressed quickly in this environment of support and love and I realized that my hopes to record sound at Kbal Spean and Koh Oknhatey – for logistical reasons of time and money – would probably not happen. I poured my energy into remembering choreography and ingraining the vocabulary of neang within my body. We began to rehearse a new solo piece I had been choreographing, Robam Teveateasei (Peavani Voleak), in which a dancer “offers her image, her life” to the gods that are present in each note and gesture of this form, to an art that is both divine gift and tool for transcending the mundane nature of our ego experience.
Thearom, who had just come back from Indonesia with Neak Kru Sophiline and a couple others for a performance in a Southeast Asian dance festival, who I had wanted so much to dance the work due to her quiet carriage that is beautiful without screaming so loudly star, stopped to say after rehearsing the work, “Wow, guys. Bong Prum’s song is so beautiful!” The other dancers gave me feedback on the movements. The day before my last rehearsal, in which a sompeah kru ceremony was arranged, I presented Robam Lom Arom to the dancers. Neak Kru Poy and Ming Ly surprised me once more with their openness – there was no pin peat, the movements were bent and twisted, pushed and pulled in a segment of the work – and encouraged me to push on with the piece. Some dancers approach me excitedly, “The sound! Wow, that was very good Prum.” I asked them why Robam Teveateasei was not as exciting. “They’re both very good pieces but we all know pin peat already. I can’t believe you made this sound on your own; I like the way it builds and your choreography is very solid.”
I understand now that I do have others within the tradition in which I can talk about my creative endeavors; I am so very excited for the future of Cambodian arts.
The next day, I arrived to see Ming Ly and Bong Kethya (Chey Chankethya), a beautiful performer of female roles who spearheads a contemporary dance company called Compass, preparing platters of fruit: coconuts, longans, mangosteens, oranges (that have green peels), and bananas. “I’m so excited to see your new work,” she says in English, “Ming Ly says that it is very good.” (Pu John, Neak Kru Sophiline’s husband, told me later that it wasn’t easy to get a reaction from Ming Ly.) Two pig heads, one cooked and one raw (for the demon spirits), sit on a platter each. I am vegetarian but I must be respectful of the diet of my predecessors. Rady, a friend and performer of monkey roles, came as a favor and gesture of support to dance the necessary monkey segment in the ritual. I sat beside him and peeled the pungent lotus petals open in the appropriate manner. Bong Sna came later with the baisei which for me, are a kind of stylization of tree and house, made by her mother the night before. The appropriate masks and crowns were brought down and placed on a table with the mask of Lok Ta Moha Eisey, so benevolent and transcendent of struggle, acting as a pivot between the forces of good (male and female characters) and evil (demon characters). We layed the platters of fruit, pig heads, one whole chicken, flowers, popped rice, white liquor, betel leaves and areca, cigarettes, and baisei before the spirits who harbor themselves in these images before offering sticks of incense and candles to our human teachers. When everyone had done so – I made offerings to Bong Cheata (Chao Socheata, a principle dancer who taught me last summer), Bong Kethya (whom I first met at UCLA during her residency with its Center for Intercultural Performance and invited as a guest), Bong Khon (Sok Sokhon, one of Cambodia’s leading performers of demon roles), Ming Ly, Neak Kru Poy, and finally Neak Kru Sophiline – we lit our incense and candles and prayed, planting them into an urn, set before the altar.
We all took our seats before the impressive display of devotion. The dancers tell me to sit like a neang but I only sit in the way that is most natural to me later. Neak Kru Sophiline called me to a central spot in front of the altar and began to chant, calling upon all of the gods, characters, and teachers of the dance and music to come and enjoy this feast. “This grandchild, Prum, makes this offering of fruit and baisei to seek your blessings in the creation of new work. He will present them to you today,” she continued on before saying, “Please, satukar!” The orchestra sounded and the offering of dance and music commenced.
THINGS TO READ:
Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim’s Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.
Rene Daumal’s Rasa, or Knowledge of the Self.
Paul Cravath’s Earth in Flower.
FOR MORE ON CAMBODIAN WEDDINGS: