I am walking with a bag in my hand. It is small and brown, the head of a teddy bear just barely creeping out at the top. I’ve thought much of my new niece these days: praying to the kru to care for her (even before she was born), asking them to show her the path of light, to bless her with intelligence and reason, to bless her entire family with health and well-being. The very thought of her – dearest niece, new life – brings a smile to my face on this cold autumn night where dull city lights cast grim tones upon the people below.
I cannot wait to give her my love.
Do you remember when we were children? We’d play school together and share ice cream; sometimes we’d scream in horror while watching X-Files or imitate combat moves from Chinese movies dubbed in Khmer. We used to take baths together as kids and when we grew up we washed ourselves of the ugliness surrounding us with the music and dance of our teacher’s teachers. And then there was that time when you buried your face in your hands and cried softly, as I fought against our whole family who wanted to marry you off to a Canadian man thirty years your senior. Oh Callie, my dearest sister – I love my niece to whom you’ve given life, I love you so very much!
When I first heard that you were pregnant from Bong Sok (I cannot even begin to imagine how afraid you must have been to tell me) my heart sank into my stomach. I’ve seen the women of our family follow this road before – starting families much too young – and here it was before my very eyes again. Our parents seemed to imprison themselves with each one of us and, here, suffering seemed to reveal its cyclical nature once more. The sadness of the mother passed onto child, the violence her mother suffered written in her skin, the pain and sorrow, joys and successes, dreams and hopes of yesterday and tomorrow belonging to those around and before and after her ingrained in her very being.
I’ve been performing a lot through out Los Angeles lately and there was a night just like this – the cold air ringing off the skin – where I walked through the streets of downtown before my show at REDCAT. I was taken by a feeling of extreme peace in the quiet and ordered streets before a sense of liberation crept up into me from the ground. I am twenty-two years old. I had to fight my family once in order to do what I do. And now, here I am, presenting my work at one of the leading venues for art in the city. I remember looking at the tall buildings overhead and each light seemed to be the watchful and supportive eye of mentors and friends, parents and siblings. Then it hit me again: my family – our family – I’ve had to tear myself away for this art.
The last time I saw Mom, she said to me upon seeing the dance jewelry around my wrists, “You are a child of the gods. That’s why you like those things.” I think it’s been several months since that time but I know those twenty minutes will live with me forever. She followed me out the door when I got ready to leave and tears started falling from her face, “I’m going to Cambodia.” In that moment came all of her broken dreams and hopes, out came the illusion and sadness that she was chasing, and it seemed as if we finally knew each other again. The quiet tears falling down her face were filled with fear and sadness, coming from eyes that saw her son: a young man just barely starting to venture into the world on his own, someone who had seen the ugly face of prejudice from his own siblings who too were born of her womb, a person destined for loneliness because he is unaccepted by the larger society and will not recreate nor have family. Mom and I have never looked at one another so clearly and I only let my own tears fall when walking away hurriedly, head lowered and telling myself not to look back.
Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve met many beautiful people. They look at me with love in their eyes, their gestures full of sincerity and support. I have been blessed with so many of these people in my life – growing up in Long Beach, the people I encountered in San Francisco, the dancers in Cambodia, and now here in Los Angeles – yet I always feel so alone. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can be dancing wildly, happiness filling my bones, but still feel by myself. Maybe the years of hiding and fighting that I’ve done and had to do made me this way.
Just last week I was with some of these people, performing in two of my dear friends’ work, Rasa Rerouted. I had met Cynthia and Shyamala at REDCAT after a show and I knew the moment we started talking that they would be a meaningful part of my life. Anyways, Rasa Rerouted is an experimental improvisation in which ancient Indian love poems were gathered and cut up, the audience had a chance to put the fragments together to make new poems, one poem was selected and the guest artists (who did not practice Indian idioms) would then interpret on the spot with a different emotion. It was so hard, Callie.
You know that we’re not trained to improvise. Any improvisation that I do is either in the high energies of a dance floor or in the privacy of a studio while choreographing. How much do I need to illustrate the text? Is the feeling of the words or the narrative they convey more important? These are questions that ran through my head as I was dancing, which made my training so very visible and me so very vulnerable. Let’s not forget to mention the fact that I was dancing as a courtesan (and not saying that dancers were courtesans by doing so). Indians seem to be more expressive as a people and I found it hard illustrating the erotic imagery and feelings through the vocabulary of Cambodian classical dance. After all, Neak Kru Sophiline once told me that Robam Lom Arom was taboo. Puzzled by this – how could a woman expressing her love and longing for her absent husband be taboo – I asked her to explain. She answered, “Well, some people would say, ‘What kind of woman is that? Can’t even control her emotions.’”
Buddhism can have such an ugly and masculine face sometimes (did you know that in Theravada Buddhism, the school of which Cambodians adhere to, you must be a man to attain enlightenment; so if you are a woman, you have to be reborn as a man before you can touch supreme wisdom and existence).
Next week, I’m leaving for San Francisco to premiere Robam Lom Arom. It’s been a demanding process – crying my eyes out when thinking about my place and future in the dance tradition, mining a well of experiences with and memories of past lovers, waking up in the middle of the night to dance because a kru gave me just one glance or word or gesture in my dreams – but it certainly has proven to be rich. I think through this residency, I’ve definitely gained much more visibility as an artist and more understanding as a person. My ideas have become more concrete and directions more clear. I’ve had the chance to engage my community on a scale like never before. Most importantly, I realized that I am more than Cambodian classical dance – I am a human being – and I will use everything I have to connect with those around me while serving the gods.
Do you remember that time we performed my first choreographic work in San Francisco? I got sick and completely miserable, tears falling silently as Bong Vy dressed me up. Why? Why did I have to be so weak on such an important day? The body paint didn’t want to stay on your skin. Showtime was coming too quickly. Our costumes even got stuck together momentarily during the performance. That performance will always live in my mind, especially now that I realize that you were already pregnant at this time. Oh my niece, Camila Darey Ok-Mancia, was already dancing with me. She was already hearing my songs and being witness to my history!
So now you, newfound mother – blessed with the joy of something I will never have, the chance to have someone grow inside of you for nine months – give your daughter the gift Neak Kru Sophiline gave to you. Dance (and the goodness of which it takes life)!
For more information about Cynthia Lee, Shyamala Moorty, and the Post Natyam Collective, as well as the show Trace in which Rasa Rerouted was a part of, please visit: