Tip-toe Through the Killing Fields

On a warm August evening a super-moon had just risen above Sulphur Mountain and the grey and golden grasslands of Happy Valley were framed by the silhouette of the distant Nordhoff range (softened in the gloaming); the Topatopa bluffs (which glowed faintly with the day’s last remaining light) and Sulphur Mountain’s oaks (massed into a dimpled, darkling terrain). Cleared of their native oaks, then later cleared of serried ranks of European walnuts (grafted onto native root-stock), the grasslands now conjured, over their 400 odd acres, a faded pastoral idyll.

 The place resonated: and it was into the unearthly timbre of this dream-like landscape that the audience was pitched as we left the Zalk theater after a stunning performance by Chankethya Chey, late of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

Now resident in the United States (after earning a degree in choreography at UCLA) she appeared as a part of the Ojai Playwrights Conference having work-shopped her piece, My Mother and I with a director and a dramaturge. Over the course of the evening it became clear that the notion of her mother included her birth parent, her dance master (a woman) and her Country. All four dramatis personae survived the rape and murder of the failed Khmer social revolution (and its aftermath) and Kethya’s attempted reckoning is communicated through the stylized gestural language of the Royal Ballet overlain with antic influences of modern and urban dance.

Released into the heady rapture of that summer’s eve, my thoughts immediately turned to the miracle we had witnessed: a classical art-form, preserved and re-energized, that had somehow survived Pol Pot’s program of cultural genocide. The ironies unfolded more slowly.

As Eric Hobsbawm details in The Age of Extremes, A History of the World, 1914-1991, the Khmer Rouge were part of a tide of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutions that swept Africa and Asia in the 1970’s. The U.S defeat in Indochina reinforced the advance of communism and socialist regimes were established in all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He notes that in the latter case, under the leadership of Pol Pot, there arose “a particularly murderous combination of Paris café Maoism…and the armed backwoods peasantry bent on destroying the degenerate civilization of the cities”.

Pol Pot’s attempt to root out the effete cultural traits of urban intellectual life had a horrendous impact on such institutions as the Royal Ballet where, of the 190 ballet corps and principals, only forty survived. More generally, of Cambodia’s estimated 380,000 artists and intellectuals, just three hundred, by some counts, escaped the genocide. Removed from power after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, the Khmer Rouge, under Chinese and American patronage, lived on in camps along the Thai border and remained a force in Cambodian politics - their flag flew in New York City, as sanctioned representatives of their country to the U.N. - until 1993. Kethya was born in 1985.

Mythology (as limned on the carved surfaces of the great tenth century temple and palace complex of Angkor Wat) attributes the beginnings of Cambodia’s dance tradition to a time when warring gods and demons churned the cosmic ocean, and celestial dancers called apsaras emerged from the froth (Brian Siebert, NYT). In Angkorian culture the human manifestations of these mystical beings became handmaidens to the court of the Empire (802-1431).

Most of the great monuments of the ancient and medieval worlds were built using forced labor. In the twentieth century, the Soviet and Chinese gulags, along with the labor camps of Nazi Germany, supplied much of the human energy required to create massive infrastructure projects. The great temple and palace monuments of Angkor Wat were similarly built by conscripted peasant labor and slaves captured from neighboring territories.

The complex has come to symbolize the country but it also represents the millennium of impoverished serfdom suffered by Cambodia’s peasants up until the declaration of the Republic in 1975. In a fiercely hierarchical society, court dance served the divine aspirations of the ruling family: as a State sponsored cultural expression, an aspect of its mission was to shore up the spurious mystical foundations of princely privilege. It was this privilege, along with the support provided by an urban, educated and cultured upper-middle class, that Pol Pot set out to destroy.

The almost-annihilation of Cambodian classical dance was a profound example of the collateral damage he inflicted on the country’s traditional arts: and it was the ghost of an apsara, nurtured in centuries of aristocratic co-option, that danced with Kethya that balmy August evening, remaining haughtily composed despite the alien influences of the globalized dance stylings with which Kethya surrounded her.

It is, perhaps, a matter for debate as to the extent to which the oppressed can authentically use the tools of an oppressor in their attempted overthrow. Or, as with Kethya, use a language of oppression to critique the history of a revolutionary force intent on that language’s destruction. It’s complicated. But certainly not lacking in irony.

Here in the United States we are long removed from our killing fields and long indoctrinated to ignore their dark shadow. The last vestige of Native resistance to the implacable forces of American imperialism was acted out in dance. As I suggested in Hoop Dreams, the development of the Ghost Dance, a mash-up of the Plains Indian round-dance, spiritual revivalism, end-times prophecy, trance states and incitement to destroy the white race was, as much as anything, a loose aggregation of stress symptoms. The movement originated in areas of profound spiritual and geographic dislocation - the Indian Reservations - where the survivors of the holocaust lived lives that were a macabre caricature of their authentic nomadic being.

James Mooney (1861-1921) was a self-taught ethnographer with the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1885 to 1921. His most notable work was in the study of the Ghost Dance. In 1894 he made a series of recordings of songs associated with the movement. Amidst the scratch and hiss of the recordings, a late nineteenth century American brogue is discernible droning Native American incantations - for these are his renderings of the anthemic Indian chants.

The Ghost Dance was once and forever ended with the killing of Sitting Bull at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. His are renderings after the fact. He sings in remembrance - in the voice of the oppressor.

In whose voice does Chankethya Chey speak?