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Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods (review)

From: Asian Theatre Journal
Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 272-275 | 10.1353/atj.2011.0019

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While this book is aimed at a popular, not scholarly, audience, it has features that will be of use to scholars of Southeast Asian performance. Its strengths are the visuals and the discussion of this evidence, as well as the reportage of more recent development in the Khmer female dance (lakhon kback boran) and dance drama (lahkon). The information is best on the Kossamak reforms from the 1950s-1960s as well as post-1979 developments in Khmer culture. The book includes short biographies of many, though by no means all, of the significant players of the last thirty years. Good-quality illustrations are a trait of River Books, which produces "coffee table" volumes aimed at regional culture enthusiasts. Lovely photos of dancers at Angkor, temple sculptures featuring dancers, pictures of nineteenth-century French archeology expeditions, rulers with their dancers in the early twentieth century, "Khmeresque" choreographies of American Ted Shawn and Belgian Xenia Zarina, who roamed Southeast Asia in the 1920s and 1930s—many archival visuals show us what dance looked like, past and present. Heywood's text helps us see details in the images. Her comments on the interplay of French art historians and cultural conservators of the colonial era and the dance, then in the context of the royal household, are insightful. She has a visual artist's eye.

Despite these strengths, there are weaknesses. Minor editing problems (misspellings, e.g., Martin Banham is listed as s Bhana [p. 149]; Pyongyan[g] loses its final "g" [p. 80]). Some are odd images or effusive statements, such as saying apsaras (female dancers churned out of the mythical ocean of milk and represented in sculpture) are "like Khmer supermodels to whose looks many women aspire" (p. 25). Descriptions of dance are romantic: "Dance is transcendent. As primal Human energy, it surpasses the human and expresses the soul" (p. 10). Historical logic is not always clear. Louis XIV's dance practice is used to explain why French colonials were interested in the art as one of France's richest performing traditions, but the author says the French found it, presumably unlike ballet, "tainted" since the dancers were "part of the royal harem." Such statements are odd given the Paris ballet's nineteenth-century history. Dancers were associated with the "Jockey Club" members, elite men who picked dancers as their mistresses. Dance in both areas was arguably dealing with related gender troubles. Most inauspicious, however, are opening arguments that try to directly apply Western aesthetics (Aristotle and Nietzsche's ideas of Dionysian and Apollonian, are inappropriate here). Indian models are not clearly distinguished from Khmer practice. Ideally, the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana as performed since the reign of Ang Duong (1769-1859), would not be conflated with Valmiki's written text (200 BCE) without noting the significant differences in plot, usage, and so on.

Direct citation of Indian material, of course, has long been a hallmark of Southeast Asian visual and performance writing, and indigenous cultural politics may still make "ancient" better. No doubt artists as well as older writing pointed the author to the Natya Sastra and claimed any hip that juts is tribanga (the breaking of the body in three, oddly shown in a Cham rather than Khmer illustration), but scholars should know that tendencies toward Sanskrit art models and use of the Sanskrit to name movements in India itself are, in large part, twentieth-century revivals that intertwined with histories of nationalism, orientalism, and general cultural politics of that era. In Southeast Asia the colonial legacy emphasized these linkages, but the evidential trail that might yield a more useful language for contemporary practice is wider and does not always lead to India for female dance practices: spirit, and ancestor veneration; rice rituals; pan-Southeast Asia court patterns of the eighteenth century; and Chinese genres might yield insights of equal or greater significance. Sanskrit material is best applied to both past and contemporary dance practice with care. The author is aware that the conservators trained in Sanskrit-inflected European universities were taught to see India and "ancient" everywhere. The ideas brought respect to artists and pleased audiences, which is probably why these ideas still circulate. By framing...



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