- Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso Edited by Prumsodun Ok
The story of Moni Mekhala, the Cambodian goddess of the seas, and Ream Eyso, the storm demon, appears frequently in ritual and theatrical Cambodian classical dances (lakhaon). Jealous of a crystal ball bestowed on Moni Mekhala by their master teacher, Ream Eyso determines to have it at any cost, including the goddess’s life. Upon hearing his threats, Moni Mekhala reacts with strength and compassion rather than fear, and does not cede to the demon’s threats but rather evades him. As she sends her crystal ball flying into the air, it produces flashes of lightning that temporarily blind Ream Eyso and provide cover for the goddess to take flight and escape into the sky. The demon sends his axe chasing after the crystal ball, producing booming thunder. Together they produce nourishing rain, even as Ream Eyso continues to pursue Moni Mekhala, and she continues her flight. Commonly danced at the New Year’s buong suong (propitiation) ritual that marks the beginning of the spring planting cycle, the dance-drama enacts the source of agricultural fertility. The myth, and its many danced versions, forms the centerpiece of the book, concentrating in it ideas of tradition and contemporaneity within Cambodian classical dance.
More than this, however, Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso argues that the myth, centered as it is on an independent woman who uses her intelligence and skills to mount a nonviolent resistance, has significant implications for gender roles in life and dance. It is perhaps no accident that an independent female character who models strength and quick thinking is also the most demanding female role in Cambodian classical dance. In editor Prumsodun Ok’s retelling of the myth, the typical title, Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala, is inverted, indicating that this volume is concerned with foregrounding the role of women in Cambodian mythology, classical dance, and contemporary society. Additionally, Ok’s version includes plot variations that emphasize Moni Mekhala’s considered and skilled actions. In this version, for example, she is aware that Ream Eyso has killed their fellow student, Vorachhun, and does not playfully tease him as she does in many iterations of the dance-drama, but instead deals with him carefully and seriously. Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso homes in on this dance-drama, and the female lead in particular, in order to consider the larger issues of the renewal of classical dance, in Cambodia [End Page 324] and in the diaspora. In addition to asking what it means to be a woman in Cambodian society, Ok and the book’s contributors raise questions about lineage and continuity in the wake of rupture, the teacher-student relationship in Cambodian classical dance, and the role of dance in general and this dance in particular in Cambodian society, at home and abroad.
Toni Shapiro-Phim’s essay, “Flight and Renewal,” follows the recounting of the myth that opens the book. The noted cultural anthropologist and Cambodian dance specialist draws attention to the changing cultural contexts of the dance-drama, including the origins of the story and the political and social history of the dance before and after the Khmer Rouge. She also describes different versions of the Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso dance-drama performed for ritual and theatrical purposes. For example, in addition to the buong suong ritual, the dance-drama is often danced for the sampeah kru (praying to teachers and spirits) ritual, which Shapiro-Phim describes as a pre-performance ceremony that solicits the guidance and blessings of previous dancers and teachers of the role, as well as the goddess herself. Finally, she gives a brief reading of the choreography in order to suggest the dance’s cultural meanings, especially for women.
Ok’s interview with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, “A Teacher’s Gift,” continues the discussion of the dance’s role in Cambodian ritual as one of the oldest dance-dramas. But more than this, the interview presents a history of twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Cambodian classical dance through the recounting of Cheam...