Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods

January 8, 2009

Denise Heywood dedicates this book to the dancers who survived the horrific years of the Pol Pot regime (1975-79), when 90 per cent of Cambodian artists and artisans were murdered. The few who escaped death spent their time in refugee camps on the border with Thailand, or fled to America and France, waiting for the day when they could return.

Vietnam then occupied Cambodia for ten years. A Vietnamese minister set aside a building where surviving dancers regrouped and started piecing together their shattered lives. The theatre where they had performed was in ruins, manuscripts were trashed, and musical instruments and gilded costumes damaged or destroyed. It was many years before Cambodian classical dance, the quintessence of the country's identity, was restored as the embodiment of Khmer culture.

This book, of interest to Khmer specialists and performing arts enthusiasts, sets dance in a historical setting. Heywood looks to Angkor at the time of the Khmer empire (9th-15th century AD), when dance was a sacred ritual performed to appease ancestral spirits. She acknowledges Hinduism as enriching Khmer art forms and emphasises the relationship between architecture and dance, comparing the gestures and movements of live performers with celestial dancers carved in stone in the Hall of Dancers, Preah Khan.

Heywood includes photographs highlighting the continuity in style of costumes, jewellery and headdresses depicted at Angkor and the dress worn by dancers at the beginning of the 20th century. According to the author, "dance evolved gradually from the hallowed precinct of the temples to that of the royal court".

Little knowledge of this world reached the West until the 19th century, when the French made us aware of the beauty and traditions of Cambodian dance. In 1906, a dance troupe performed in Marseilles and moved on to a fantastic reception in Paris. Among those who came under their spell was the artist Rodin, whose vivacious drawings are included in this book. The tour also inspired the dancers Nijinsky and Mata Hari in a time of fascination with everything oriental.

Heywood charts court patronage in the 20th century, when dance and classical culture moved beyond the confines of the palace to performances at national and international events. Princess Buppha Devi, daughter of Prince Sihanouk, performed for President Eisenhower, members of the British royal family, General Tito, Prime Minister Nehru, Premier Zhou Enlai and General de Gaulle, demonstrating the international popularity of Cambodian dance.

In 1962, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia had a cast of nearly 300, including dancers, teachers, musicians, costume designers, seamstresses, make-up artists, jewellery keepers, students and apprentices. A National Conservatory for Performing Arts was established to ensure the preservation of all forms of Cambodian art. All of this was destroyed by Pol Pot.

Heywood describes this era as a "dance with death", and she dedicates a chapter to the artists and artisans who survived and returned and who, with the help of outsiders, individuals and organisations, set about restoring dance to its former glory. She records how Cambodian dance in the 21st century has increased its repertoire to include innovative versions of operas and plays from other cultures.

But what of the future? Heywood paints a grim picture. The National Theatre Company of Cambodia rehearses in the burnt-out shell of the former Tonle Bassac Theatre in Phnom Penh, a site leased to a private developer and due for demolition as this book went to print. Other sites devoted to the performing arts have also been sold to property speculators. Shiva's cosmic dance of creation and destruction may be a suitable metaphor for what is happening.

Cambodian Dance: Celebration of the Gods

By Denise Heywood. River Books. 144pp, £19.95. ISBN 9789749863404. Published 1 August 2008

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