Cultural Equity Dialogues: The Teacher's Gift
By Prumsodun Ok
Editor's Note: The Teacher's Gift is an essay by Cambodian classical dancer Prumsodun Ok in response to the Leadership segment of ACTA's Cultural Equity Dialogues, a series of interactive articles exploring topics relating to cultural equity and folk & traditional arts. You are invited to join this conversation by posting your own comments and stories below.
Once, a long time ago, there lived a powerful hermit. He had under his tutelage three very capable and intelligent students and wanted to bestow a most precious gift upon the most deserving of them. There was Moni Mekhala, goddess of the seas, and the storm demon Ream Eyso; Prince Vorachhun studied magic with the wise man as well. Seeing their abilities, the hermit could not decide who to give his gift to so he conceived a contest in which the winner would receive the prize. He told his students sitting in respect below him, whom he loved like his own children, “Whoever should bring me back a glass full of morning dew first will be master of this gift.”
The next morning Ream Eyso and Vorachhun rose with the sun to gather tiny drops of dew from countless leaves of countless trees in the forest; they rushed back to the hermit’s home only to find Moni Mekhala waiting for them there. Unlike the men, she left her scarf out in the night to soak up the dew and had only to wring out the precious fluid into the glass. This clever strategy earned her a crystal ball which she now held in her hand, her knowledge causing a powerful, blinding light to emanate it. The demon and prince were given a diamond axe and magic dagger as consolation prizes, respectively.
Seeing the radiance of Moni Mekhala’s gift, Ream Eyso began to covet the object. Desire and greed grew stronger in him with each passing moment and day, flowing through his blood and filling his bones. He began to stalk the goddess through the skies, killing Vorachhun who was her ally, and trying to win the object from her through sweet words and later through violent threats. Unfazed by all of this, Moni Mekhala calmly dismissed each of the demon’s advances. Finally, enraged and out of strategies, Ream Eyso flung his axe at the goddess but he was blinded when she threw the crystal ball into the air, generating lightning. His axe missed its mark and the sound of it hitting the clouds unleashed thunder. The conflict and union of their energies – of lightning and thunder, of good and evil, of femininity and masculinity – created the rains that fell to revive Prince Vorachhun, manifestation of the earth, and gave birth to the rain that the Cambodian people, who have lived in an agricultural society for millennia, depend on for survival.
Moni Mekhala looked upon Ream Eyso – her peer, perhaps once her friend, and like her, a newfound keeper of her teacher’s knowledge and tradition – as he struggled in his blinded rage. In her compassion, the goddess chose to let him live and took his vulnerability as a chance to escape into the clouds. Soon after, Ream Eyso recovered from this spell and retreated into the clouds to regain himself and stalk the goddess again, the two locked in an eternal struggle.
Mot Pharan (blue) and Sot Sovanndy (masked), just two of the Khmer Arts Ensemble’s many rising wonders of Cambodian classical dance, performing as Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso respectively at the 2009 Lakhaon Festival in Phnom Penh.
Copyright Anders Jiras, photographer. Courtesy of Khmer Arts Academy.
Like the crystal ball given to Moni Mekhala from the hermit, my teacher Sophiline Cheam Shapiro (among others) has bestowed upon me a most precious and powerful gift. My gift, however, is not an object but, rather, a collection of choreographies, melodies, and histories inscribed into my body as a Cambodian classical dancer. It is an art form that has elevated my quality of life, allowing for me to transcend the realities of being a child of aged refugees wrought with the trauma of a brutal auto-genocide. Their ten children, otherwise valuable hands of labor in an agricultural world, imprisoned them in a world of domestic responsibility and they became disempowered in a new society where they lacked the cultural, linguistic, and social tools to successfully function. I grew up in a broken inner city: a world of cyclical violence and suffering, a place where you watched brothers get jumped into gangs and teenage sisters telling their enraged parents that they were pregnant. It was the love and guidance of Neak Kru Sophiline (along with her husband John Shapiro) and the opportunities that dance presented – being complimented by a nun at Lake Shrine during my first performance, dancing beneath Los Angeles’ skyscrapers as over a thousand people look on, flying on a plane for the first time to perform in Oakland – that inspired me to know and be more than the realities immediately before me.
My parents, although supportive at first, later prohibited my sisters and I from dancing. I was seventeen years old at the time and the only one of the three to have the courage to disobey my parents. I was attacked with verbal abuse; sometimes my elder siblings, tired of having to hear me quarrel with my parents, took matters into their own hands and fists. There was even a day when, as I got ready to leave the house for dance class, my mother threatened to disown me. I turned to her and said, “Then do it; you ignorant, uneducated peasant.”
Now older and wiser, I relay the difficulties of my background to reveal the challenges of what it means to practice a traditional art in America and what building a leader in my artistic community takes. In the case of Cambodian Americans – who are here as a result of trauma and war – many of whom come from rural peasantry that has been tied to the land and sun and the poverty that comes with it for countless generations, life is about survival. My parents and their peers do not want their children to suffer the same way they did, to know poverty in a country that is known for abundance and opportunity. Other than appreciating Cambodian classical dance as a cultural heirloom, they probably could not describe the meaning of the dance or its history as, although a potent symbol of Cambodian identity, the dance is after all an esoteric art of the royal court so far away from the Cambodia they knew. Ultimately, they perceived the dance to be a useless tool for securing a stable income and future in American society.
It has been seven years since I began my training, six years since the conflicts with my parents resulting from dance, and I have seen my parents slowly come around. They saw that dance took me to school in San Francisco and helped me enter an elite university; they see that I am perhaps the only one of ten children who can survive and function in Cambodian society due to my training in dance. Furthermore, they see that I am supporting myself from my income as a dancer. My parents had wanted for me to become a doctor or a teacher and as a practitioner of Cambodian classical dance I had become both and more. “Prum instills calm and joy into his audience, allowing for them to access a state for healing so he is like a doctor. He teaches children from the community this art form,” my father once said, surprising me during an interview with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. And today, as a curator and media artist for Khmer Arts, as the videographer for the Cambodian Community History and Archiving Project, as a member of the advisory board of the Southeast Asian Archives at UC Irvine, as an emerging artist who has presented his original works on some of California’s premiere venues, as someone actively organizing and shaping the community, as someone entrusted with the opportunities to speak on behalf of others, I can say that my once antagonistic parents have fully come around when they lit incense in honor of Lok Ta Maha Eisey – literally “Grandfather, the Great Aescetic”, of whom all knowledge of the arts emanates – and the dance crowns sitting behind his stone image on the altar in my room.
My story, to use a Hindu-Buddhist image – lotus born of mud (passed onto me from my teacher once again) – owes much to the relationship between teacher and student that is so crucial in Cambodian classical dance practice. Knowledge is safely, sometimes almost greedily, guarded by teachers in Cambodia. Neak Kru Sophiline not only trained me – a young man practicing roles performed by women, a second generation Cambodian American, a child of peasant farmers practicing an art nurtured in the royal court – but gave me the things that my mother could not. I was invited into her home for one-on-one training free of charge, sitting in a corner of her living room to sing along as she molded the bodies of my peers during group rehearsals. I assumed household responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning (which I neglected in my own home) as a gesture of respect for my teacher and often stayed for dinner where she would share anecdotes from her life: Soth Sam On once asked Neak Kru Sophiline to live with her and forego marriage in order to devote her life to the art, how free and proud and independent she felt when she drove a car for the first time through the streets of Los Angeles! I absorbed every detail during these sessions, dancing and singing, eating and listening – learning what love and respect, hope and resilience were (and looked like) – until it was time for her husband to take me back home.
In this, I believe that training in the traditional arts offers some advantages in sustaining leadership. The teacher traditionally identifies and nurtures those who carry the potential to maintain the art form (as exemplified by their ability to physically and spiritually embody the dance); their relationship is something like parent and child and spans through out all aspects of their lives. In other words, nurturing a leader in the context of Cambodian classical dance is not a thing of profession but rather a process of real, intimate human connection.
Soth Sam On places an apsara crown on Neak Kru Sophiline circa 1984. Courtesy of Khmer Arts Academy.
However I must say that just because something has operated for centuries does not render it as the most effective method of working. I grew up listening to many stories of disorder and unhealth in the traditional master-apprentice system: rivalries between teachers were passed onto their protégés and students without connections – people who were not kin to the teachers, people who did not come from rich and important families – were often neglected in their training. For example Neak Kru Sophiline, in the early days of her training when she rehearsed male and demon roles under the guidance of Soth Sam On (leading performer of demon roles in the palace from the 1950s to 1970s), received the highest marks on an examination. After this, Chea Samy – most senior of the dance faculty – insisted that she study female roles as she was too short for male roles. Now in the care of Chea Samy, Neak Kru Sophiline had access to all of the major roles performed by women but was surprised to find herself neglected by her new teacher, questioning whether her transfer to this role was an attempt to offset the influence of a rival teacher who had nurtured her development. Furthermore, Chea Samy focused her energy upon one star student. The danger of this decision manifested when in 1990, after a tour to America, she learned that her most beloved of students had defected. The seed she chose to plant grew beautifully but she would not get the chance to see this seed plant others, especially difficult to stomach in a period following the deaths of ninety percent of Cambodia’s artists. Students and teachers – and the art itself – fell victim to this pedagogical process. And as John Shapiro, executive director of Khmer Arts, once said to me (after remarking about how I am too stubborn to function in this type of relationship due to my vision as an artist), “It can be quite beautiful when it works. But what happens when the student is more than the teacher?”
I am fortunate enough to have a teacher who saw the beauty and value of traditional teaching methods and the courage to rectify the places in which it fell short. She maintains a fine balance in nurturing the skill of her students while leaving enough room for them to explore and experiment in the process of finding their own voice and place in the world. Neak Kru Sophiline is respectful of her students’ identities and sensitive to the manner in which they understand themselves. For example, during a trip to Cambodia she surprised me when she asked, “How should I introduce you Prum? As my student or my friend?” This certainly does not happen in a world of mistrust in which teachers guard and perhaps hoard their knowledge and demand the hierarchy of their practice be maintained.
With the goal of having any one of her students be able to rebuild and sustain the dance and the culture that surrounds it should she disappear – hopefully not for a long time – Neak Kru Sophiline has democratized an art form that has been so vertical in its structures. Members of her Khmer Arts Ensemble, young women who were neglected at the national school, have been molded and sculpted into Cambodia’s premiere dancers and performers. They have access to important roles in dance that would otherwise only be granted to one dancer of one generation; they are all given opportunities to perform leading roles and solos, giving each person the chance to know the limelight. Even more, her dancers are paid livable wages – unheard of in Cambodia’s contemporary arts economy – thus empowering the young women by providing them with a real, concrete example of how much value their knowledge and skill has in society.
Developing and sustaining leadership in the art of Cambodian classical dance presents very different challenges here in America, as perhaps it does in other diasporic communities.
A video still from CounterPULSE 2009 featuring my performance as Neang Sovann Atmani in Robam Lom Arom for the Performing Diaspora Festival. Still courtesy of Loren R. Robertson.
As an emerging artist who practices an art form that can seem rather esoteric in an American context, I have been rather fortunate in the many funding and presentation opportunities that have come my way. However, I cannot help but feel like I am stuck. I feel that my art form is sometimes mistaken for a static practice without any relevance to the realities of everyday people due to the shining costumes and stylized gestures that originated in a faraway land and is sometimes perceived as too adventurous for others when I choose to faithfully employ the art form to depict a non-traditional and personal relationship, thereby elevating my first-hand experience into the mytho-poetic space in which the dance is set.
I find it necessary to shape the culture and space in which our art forms exist before we can define what it means to be a leader within the traditional arts community here in California. People – practitioners and audience members, funders and presenters – need to understand that although specific in their aesthetics, histories, and politics, traditional art forms can be effective tools for connecting across communities (as opposed to a means of defining oneself against a larger social fabric). And when in the hands of the right person, every art form has the potential to serve as a foundation for limitless expression that carries a very real, universal relevance. I believe this is true for all traditions, from Cambodian classical dance to post-modern dance, from Egyptian mural painting to experimental filmmaking.
In order to properly master the technique of Cambodian classical dance in the United States, an artist must be in constant dialogue with the practitioners who are based in the country from which the art form originated. This has proven difficult for someone like myself: born to poor parents, born into an ethnic community especially wrought with disorder and disharmony, practicing an art which is hardly a reflection of the rapid-fire sensory experience that is American consumerist culture. There are young people like myself – the eager and ready keepers of heritages here in the States – that need to be sent to Cambodia or to Indonesia or to Brazil to learn how to dance and sing, costume and craft, in order to ensure that our practice does not become a disrespectful, bastardized display of ethnocentric pride in a world where art forms with ritual potency are sometimes commercialized in karaoke videos, where those “outside” of the community are afraid to raise critique for fear of sounding insensitive to an entire culture and history.
Take these two examples of dance in the hands of non-dancers from YouTube. The first video is from a karaoke video depicting a popular Cambodian singer dressed as an apsara, a celestial dancer that is the ultimate symbol of Cambodian womanhood, dancing appropriated movements from Robam Apsara to music translated for the consumer and global stages. The latter features young Cambodian Americans performing choreography they watched from a DVD of Preah Neang Seda’s trial by fire in the Reamker (the Khmer version of the Ramayana). Their inaccurate costumes and unrefined movements are a reflection of their love and pride, the boxing ring and audience (and the stripes of the American flag in the corner) are certainly curious elements to consider.
In addition, to develop leaders in the traditional arts there must be platforms to safely address the complexities of diasporic practice. I’ve seen some Cambodian Americans appropriate entire classical dance choreographies and rewrite the lyrics to honor the Christian concept of god, the result a sloppy and uncoordinated, not to mention disrespectful, display of ethnic identity and subversive devotion. The art is surrounded in rituals which reflect its foundations in a syncretic Buddhism that draws upon elements of Hinduism, ancestor worship, and animism; the movements are an embodiment of these philosophies. What does it mean when a Christian teenager is forced by a parent to train in this art? What does it mean when a spiritual expression becomes an ethnic and nationalist expression? I’ve been tracking many wars on YouTube lately which manifest in nasty comments beneath Cambodian classical dance videos: Cambodians hate Thais and Thais hate Cambodians. Both sides spit out violent nonsense and use the dance as a weapon and battlefield of identity, forgetting the fact (or not knowing) that their dancers pray to the same hermit who is master of the arts. My eldest brother is half-Thai, my mother has the light skin of a woman of Chinese Cambodian heritage, my grandmother instilled terror into the locals when she began speaking her fluent Vietnamese to the soldiers who forced the Khmer Rouge into retreat, some of my nephews and nieces are half Mexican, some are mixed with black, others with white – I am the last person that should be employing the dance as symbol of ethnic identity. The unhealthy politics and out-dated discourse of the old world must be understood but put to rest in favor of interaction and understanding on a human, global level. As we groom and glean the next generation for leaders we must redefine our concept of community and ownership and ask: does being Cambodian American inherently make you a keeper of Cambodian classical dance? How do we celebrate and honor the specific nuances of a heritage while recognizing its universal beauty and significance? Only then can there be positive and effective, cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary dialogue and engagement amongst California’s traditional artists – something absolutely crucial to the idea of traditional arts community in the first place.
Beyond keeping in touch with the source material and creating a dialogue within the field, I think it’s necessary for experimentation to be encouraged within the traditional arts: in the studio and on the stage, with the money of funders and with the support of the community. Why practice an art form in America when it is already being maintained and sustained in another part of the world? First off, these are wonderful gifts and heritages that serve as alternative voices and histories, images and philosophies to the status quo. To answer the question, the beauty lies in specificity. Practitioners such as myself have experiences that our peers in other parts of the world do not have. We have a greater potential to meaningfully define the art form for our immediate community by virtue of shared spaces and realities. I certainly did not get to where I am as a dancer and choreographer by sticking to the “rules” and Neak Kru Sophiline, leading choreographer in the form, is certainly shaking up the aesthetic and social practice of this art – we do all of this with respect and love for our practice of course, are vested fully in its integrity. Furthermore, although we practice an art that is maintained by a community, I think it is safe to say that it is the leadership and vision of an individual that often ensures that the art form maintains its meaning and relevance into the future. If you don’t believe me, take a look at vintage photographs of Cambodian classical dance and photos from our day and compare the details, lines, and shapes. Lok Khun Meak, with the patronage of Queen Kossamak Neariroth, was pivotal in “Cambodianizing” the art of Cambodian classical dance in Cambodia’s post-independence “golden age”; compare photos and video of the dancers of this period to those of Neak Kru Sophline’s generation when Chea Samy was sounding the gong of preservation and transmission under a socialist regime. There is always more than one voice in a tradition and some of them become more important than others. In the case of a classical tradition, something tells me that it is the voices of those who stray – exploring the “wrong”, pushing the “right” – that come to fully understand and embody their gestures and movements, their songs and melodies. No tradition is static and unchanging anyway.
Compare Khem Bunnak’s portrayal of Moni Mekhala (Soth Sam On is playing Ream Eyso) – big, loose and open arm movements that seem to wrap around and into pose, punctuated by deeply-rooted body rests and staccato kicks into the air – with those of Neak Kru Sophiline’s generation (Neak Kru Sophiline is in the front, stage left). There is approximately twenty years of difference in these videos.
As I bring my thoughts to a close, I cannot help but think of the story of Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso. I have always wondered what would happen should Ream Eyso obtain Moni Mekhala’s crystal ball. Would he kill her? Would he, in his insatiable desire for power, wage war upon the old hermit who gave him all he knew? There are so many possibilities but there is one image that speaks to me most: Moni Mekhala surrenders the crystal ball to her adversary and delighted, Ream Eyso laughs with his newfound power. He attempts to kill the goddess with her own weapon but to no success and watches the ball turn dull in his hand, something once so powerful is rendered meaningless, worthless weight. It crumbles to dirt.
This is my fate, and the fate of others in my situation, should there be no clear strategies to develop wholesome artists working in the traditional arts. In the case of Cambodian classical dance in Los Angeles, how can there be leaders within the traditional arts community if there are no artists fully equipped with sound technical training, historical awareness, and singular vision to mold and sculpt the bodies and spirits, minds and eyes of the next generation of dancers? To carry but a little art is already a wonderful gift but to carry an entire art – in the voice, in the body, in the soul – is power and privilege, is duty and responsibility.
Through all this, I am taken back to Cambodia. I am in my teacher’s home where I stand in the living room, looking into a room where my teacher sits beside her teacher, Soth Sam On, who has been like mother to her just as she has been to me. The old woman – her hair completely white, one eye blind, her limbs tired and worn – lies upon the bed of one of Neak Kru Sophiline’s twin sons. Just moments earlier, she looked so big and powerful when I sat at her feet with my hands in prayer, contemplating the small plate of food at her side that she always put out for the teacher spirits – she looks so weak and broken now on the bed. She asks for Neak Kru Sophiline to sing her a song. “What shall I sing?” she asks as she flips through the pages of a songbook. Within a few moments, Neak Kru Sophiline’s voice begins to raise a dance melody into the air, its softness like a lullaby a mother delivers to child, a melody that the old woman – bless her heart – probably once sang to the student beside her. I stood outside the room, frozen and struck by the image. “This is real love,” I remember thinking, and I began to wonder if I, given my realities, were even in line to sing for my teacher like this when the time comes, would even have the chance to add new songs to the book held in her hand and the books of our bodies.
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