A peacock comes to rest for a brief moment at Angkor Wat in celebration of the new millenium, living proof of Cambodia's current commitment to the renewal of traditional performing arts, richly documented in Toni Samantha Phim and Ashley Thompson's new volume reviewed here.
THIS elegant, authoritative volume fills a gap in Cambodian studies. Scholars
of Cambodia and thousands of tourists are acquainted with classical Cambodian dance
either at first hand or via films and photographs. Indeed, perhaps only the faces
of the Bayon and views of Angkor Wat in the afternoon light have been more frequently
transformed into photographic negatives, for which the French word is cliché.
How much do we know about these three clichés? The faces of the Bayon resist
analysis and so does the vista of Angkor Wat. The dancers are more accessible because,
as Phim and Thompson demonstrate, they are living people working inside a network
of traditions. linked for centuries with Cambodian royalty and, in Cambodia's villages,
with ceremonies aimed at inducing harmony among inhabitants, their ancestors and
After a concise and luminous historical introduction that notes the importance of
dancing and dancers in earlier times, and sketches the plot of the Cambodian version
of the Ramayana, the Reamker, Phim and Thompson divide their book into four chapters,
dealing successively with shadow theater (Sbaek thom) court/classical dance (robam
luong) all-male dance drama (lakhon khol) and ceremonial and theatrical dance, covering
a range of genres. Each chapter includes historical background, vivid descriptions
of personnel, training and performance, line drawings and black and white photographs.
Twenty sumptuous color plates, gathered in the middle, follow the order of the chapters.
A helpful glossary and a select bibliography close off the book.
Phim and Thompson have spent several years in Cambodia. They have watched hundreds
of hours of shadow plays, dance rehearsals and performances, listening, asking questions
and taking pictures. The book reflects their fastidious, open-ended work. Readers
are privileged to take part in a fraction of what Phim and Thompson have seen, heard
and photographed. The fraction includes some rarely performed village dances and
some conversations with senior dance teachers now deceased.
As Cambodia drifts toward globalization, many of its particularities have blurred
and its cultural uniqueness, a by-product of centuries of comparative isolation,
is at risk. So are many of its traditions, and so are such curators of tradition
as royalty, crafts people and attentive demanding rural audiences. Stuck in the traffic
in Phnom Penh in the 1990s or reading grim statistics about Cambodian health and
education today, it's tempting to slip into pessimism and to regard Cambodian culture
as a thing of the past.
As far as Cambodian dance is concerned, however, this would be a mistake, for "The
dancing and the dancers ... constitute the archive assuring the perpetuation of tradition."
This is as true of the shadow plays in Siem Reap and the lakhon khol troupe in Kandal
as it is of better-funded and more familiar classical dance troupes.
Earlier this year I spent a morning watching over a hundred young dancers rehearsing
at the Royal University of Fine Arts. The visit had been arranged for me and a colleague
by Toni Phim. The performance convinced us that Cambodian dance was alive, beautiful
and well and that as Ms Phim and Ashley Thompson suggest, it continues to respond
to a "very real and uninterrupted need" of Cambodians for an identity of
their own, linking the apsara of the Angkorean temples and Cambodia's ancestor-crowded
past to the cacophonous, frightening world of 2000.
David Chandler teaches at Georgetown University. He is the author of
"Voices from S 21;
Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison."