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  • Earth in Flower: The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama
  • Toni Shapiro-phim
Earth in Flower: The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama. By Paul Cravath. Holmes Beach, FL: DatASIA, 2008. xxx, 544 pp., 188 illus. Cloth, $128.00.

Earth in Flower is a slight revision of Paul Cravath’s 1985 PhD dissertation on the court dance of Cambodia, an art form with a historically intimate connection to the land and its spirits. Except for the addition of some photographs, the publisher notes that he chose to “remain true to Dr. Cravath’s . . . doctoral thesis without modifying, deleting, or rewriting content which reflects attitudes or conventions of use that have changed in the past twenty years” (xxiii).

The book is a treasure trove. It includes more than 180 photographs, drawings, and paintings; listings of early and mid twentieth-century Royal Palace performance programs; an extensive bibliography of Chinese, Dutch, English, and French sources, as well as English- and French-language publications by Khmer writers; and chapters that start with Southeast Asian prehistory and conclude with the dance’s ritual function. Cravath arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to undertake research for a degree in theater just as the civil war was tightening its grip on the capital city in early 1975. Before being evacuated to Thailand as Cambodia was about to fall to the communist revolutionaries, he gained access to manuscripts and photographs, some of which were destroyed during the following years of turmoil. The Khmer Rouge, under the infamous Pol Pot, took control of the capital in April 1975. By the time that regime was ousted in January 1979, an estimated 80–90 percent of the country’s professional artists (including dancers, musicians, playwrights, and poets), along with close to two million of their compatriots, had perished from starvation and disease or had been executed. Aspects of the cultural knowledge of those who died vanished as well. Therefore this volume presents a unique portrait.

Since 1979, Cambodia’s artistic community has been re-creating what it could of the traditional repertoire, with surviving artists painstakingly recalling their embodied wisdom and skills. Performers also continue to develop new works. A resource such as Cravath’s is valuable in filling in some of the lacunae in the historic record, yet aspects of that record here are in need of correcting and updating. [End Page 170]

Chapter 1 outlines Cravath’s perspective of Cambodia’s classical dance tradition. Cravath sides with historians who posit a Southeast Asian–centric view of Khmer cultural beliefs and practices, wherein the Khmer are given agency for the creation and continuity of their dance as opposed to the art being viewed as derivative of Indian forms.1 Cravath concludes that “[f ]or Khmer dance drama, India may have provided a literary medium for mythological expression, and in a much later period the Thai influenced it as well. But in form, in structure, in spirit, and in the selective process operative in its evolution, the dance drama—like the culture in which it flowered—is exclusively a reflection of the Cambodian people” (7).

Chapter 2 examines archeological, sculptural, and epigraphic evidence up to the reign of King Jayavarman II (802–850) in order to establish the long connection of Khmer dance with both temples and monarchs. Chapter 3 focuses on dance during the time of the Angkor Empire (ninth to fifteenth centuries), when Khmer kings ruled over vast parts of mainland Southeast Asia. Sculpted dancing figures grace the numerous stone temples constructed in that era, and evidence points to dramatic performances by dancers associated with royalty.

Chapter 4 takes us from the mid fifteenth-century fall of Angkor up to the early 1980s. Codification of Khmer classical dance gestures occurred during the reign of Ang Duong (1848–1860), according to a 1963 publication of the Cambodian Information Department. Cravath notes that Norodom Sihanouk’s first time as king (1941–1955) and then as prince and head of state (1955 until a 1970 coup d’état) saw the dance linked with Cambodia’s nationalist agenda. The dancers, accompanying Sihanouk on travels overseas, came to represent the country to the larger world. Yet, until the 1970s, the...


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