Never Static: The Yemanjá Arts Festival and Cambodian Cultural Dance Troupe of San Jose

ACTA - Posted on 14 April 2014

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One of the great privileges of working in the traditional arts field is to observe how cultural communities express core values, giving their time and resources to activities that give meaning to their collective lives.  Two events supported by the Living Cultures Grants Program took place in March, events which exemplify what it means to interpret legacy in ways altered from the practice in its original homelands.

The term "community-based arts" can often mask the rigor, discipline, and depth of study that these expressions require.  It is often the strength of the collective, working together, that keeps the art forms alive and regenerative.  In the case of these two Living Cultures projects, the regeneration is both within the cultural expression itself and with the choices the practitioners make. 

The Yemanjá Arts Festival, produced by BrasArte in Berkeley, California, on March 15, 2014, mirrors a sacred holiday observed in Brazil that pays homage to the deity of the sea.

She is depicted as a beautiful woman rising from the water and represents the force of life itself.  She is believed to be the patron of women, children, and the protector of fishermen.  Yemanjá plays a central role in the religion of Candomblé, the Yoruba-based religion of Brazil.

Yoruba religious beliefs from West Africa found their way to the Caribbean, South America, and the United States via the slave trade and have been observed for centuries, often at great risk to its adherents.  Candomblé emerged as slaves retained their religion and managed in a synchronistic way to blend the belief in multiple deities (orixás) with the saints and holy figures of Christianity that arrived with the Portuguese.

While the Yemanjá Arts Festival at BrasArte is a secular celebration, the religious roots are understood.  The celebratory night featured food, altars, and decorations in the colors of the sea.  The dance and music referenced water and Yemanjá’s many attributes through the lens of orixá worship as seen in Brazil and Cuba.  A hula from Hawaii was also included and while Hawaiians did not share the Yoruba influence, the sacredness of water and the feminine spirit aligned well with the presentations of the Festival.   

How the sacred and secular move seamlessly through the dance and music required knowledge.  For those who came to enjoy a good evening of engaging Brazilian arts, the Festival was accessible and they were not disappointed.  For those who understood the complexity of the orixá from a spiritual perspective, the folkloric presentation held additional layers of meaning.  

Many festival attendees dressed in traditional white and blue in honor of the deity. Some religious priests and priestesses from corresponding houses of worship were in attendance, acknowledging the opportunity to gather in honor of the deity’s day.

Founder and artistic director of BrasArte, Conceicao Damasceno, is a native of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, where she was raised in the traditions of Candomble.  As a pioneer of Brazilian dance in the Bay Area for nearly three decades, she has navigated the translation of traditions with careful thought.  She has built a community platform that provides a space for the multi-level experience of complex ideas.  The BrasArte mission has been to bridge the cultural interest for Brazilian expats in the Bay Area and to serve the public interested in Brazil’s traditional dance and music. 


For the Cambodian American youth of San Jose who planned, produced, and danced in a production called Remembering Ancient Gestures, one sentiment was echoed over and over again by each of the graduating high school seniors: Studying Khmer dance gave them a deeper connection to their culture.  Their experience of Cambodia is largely through the experience of the immigrant generation.  As second generation Americans, many of their parents were born in refugee camps and arrived in the United States as young refugee status children or teens.  They may have living grandparents who survived traumas of starvation or the brutal work camps and would never fully acclimate to American life.  The rebirth of Khmer arts among each new transplanted community in the United States has been a small miracle of dedication by surviving artists.  ACTA has documented on our website some of this renaissance in Long Beach, Oakland and San Jose California.

The March 29th program was a showcase for senior dancers of the Cambodian Cultural Dance Troupe. Each graduating senior is bound for college and this concert was an opportunity to choose a solo piece that best depicted their skill and journey as an artist.  Equally important, paying respect to and gratitude for their teachers and families whose volunteer support for the program has been a 20 year effort, was given equal stage time.  Narrated by the youth in both English and Khmer, they paid homage to their mentors: Savary Dean, artistic director who has donated her time to teaching class weekly for 25 years; Raline Von-Bulow, assistant director; Charya Burt, dance consultant; and Tak Pheng, dance teacher whose specialty is in the monkey dance for young men.  Many of these teachers studied at the highest level in Cambodia,studying the classical arts which were targeted by the Khmer Rouge for destruction. Many artists were targeted and perished in what is infamously known as the "killing fields".  This cultural memory is a poignant backdrop for all the young artists in their study and personal development.  

Another milestone was the inclusion of live music provided by the only pin-peat ensemble in California under the direction of master musician, Ho Chan.  The musicians travelled from Long Beach to support the youth in this effort.  A grant from the Living Cultures Grants Program last year supported the travel of the San Jose group to work with the musicians on several occasions to deepen their knowledge and performance abilities.

In its Cambodian context, a Khmer classical dancer is a lifetime pursuit demanding rigorous training.  It is not an add-on activity; it is a vocation of the highest esteem.  Does traditional practice lose something in translation when it is replicated outside of its homeland?  Do first- and second-generation American practitioners imbue practice with different meanings?  

Surely answers to these questions are complex. While one purpose of Khmer classical dance may have been to communicate with the divine, could we argue that the molding of these young students into strong culturally solid Khmer-Americans through their arts practice also constitutes transformation?

Meaning and purpose can be layered in the same way that looking into a prism will reveal colors that were not readily apparent from another angle.  The sacred and secular manifestations of a Yemanjá Festival, or Khmer dance translated by new contexts, are a living, breathing negotiation.  Traditional arts are never static.

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The Yemanja Arts Festival and Cambodian Cultural Dance Troupe of San Jose


Yemanjá is an imposing female deity associated with the ocean.  She is the ocean herself, the mother of all living things, a patron of women, guardian through childbirth, a protector of children.  She watches over the fishermen and sailors.  A poster depicting her and an altar of items associated with her were displayed in the lobby of Casa de Cultura where the Yemanjá Festival 2014 was held in Berkeley on March 15.


A youth troupe performs a folkloric dance depicting Yemanjá. The orixá, or deity, is associated with the color blue, a reference to her water dominion.


Yemanjá is danced by Ashlee George, Assistant Director of the Festival.  The goddess is often depicted with images of things she likes: flowers and objects of female vanity like perfume, jewelry, combs, lipsticks, and mirrors.


Soloist Regina Tolbert of the Susana Arenas Cuban Dance Company performs an energetic depiction of Yemanjá's power and force.   Behind her are the female batá ensemble featuring, Morgan Simon (iya, center), Elizabeth Sayre (itotele, not pictured, right) and Jules Hilson (okonkolo, left).


Regina Tolbert captures Yemanjá's fierce power, much like a storm on an ocean.


The youngest students of the Cambodian Cultural Dance Troupe demonstrate exercises that they do each class for flexibility and grace.


Ryan Boun performs the basic movements of the ogre masked dance. He has studied dance for six years and mentors the younger students each week.


Chheng Sim Bun is Chinese-Cambodian. She writes in the program, " All the hard work and pain is worth it in the end because when I finally perform the dance for others to see, I feel like I am the heavenly being that I am portraying. Khmer dance is a part of me."


The teaching of the monkey character is a favorite among the boys in the dance academy.   Monkeys figure into the story of the Khmer Ramayana, the great epic tale of Asia.


The performers take a bow.


Senior dancers honor their teachers and mentors. From l to r: Raline Von-Buelow (back to camera) assists artistic director, Savary Dean in the middle. Mrs. Dean studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Cambodia and has taught youth in San Jose for 25 years without pay as a tribute to her perished artist-colleagues. To her left, Mrs. Leslie Kim has been a volunteer whose contributions to the community continue long after her own daughter has left the dance academy for college.


Charya Burt who lives in Sonoma County is a master dance artist who has assisted the San Jose dancers over the years as a lead mentor. She has watched the students progress in their studies. For this concert production, she sang with the live music and assisted with the preparations of costuming and make-up. She appears here with her mother back stage.


Master musician Ho Chan has assembled the only pin-peat orchestra in California.   The opportunity for the students to perform with live music has deepened their appreciation for the complexity of the dances.