Cambodia’s Khmer Arts Ensemble performed at UC Santa Barbara’s Campbell Hall on October 6, enchanting local audiences with its presentation of the classical Cambodian dance and music tradition.
The Khmer Arts Ensemble’s production, The Lives of Giants, is an original creation based upon an ancient Hindu epic, but its theme of violence breeding violence is poignantly relevant in light of Cambodia’s war-ravaged recent past.
In the 1970s the Khmer Rouge Communist regime ruthlessly persecuted the Cambodian population, resulting in genocide and famine. The regime also attempted to eradicate the historical and cultural heritage of Cambodia.
Only after the fall of the Khmer Rouge was the study of classical Cambodian dance and music revived. “I dedicate my work to the preservation of classic work but at the same time keeping classic work relevant,” said Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, choreographer of the production and artistic director of the Khmer Arts Ensemble.
Shapiro has founded a separate Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach that provides free classical dance classes to Cambodian-American children in the area and periodically sends its students to train in Cambodia. The Khmer Arts Ensemble itself is stationed in Cambodia but tours extensively all over the world. Cambodian classical dance, which is over a thousand years old, evolved from temple dancing and was performed as part of prayer to bring peace and prosperity to the land. As most other classical dance traditions, it has strictly codified roles and stylized movements that help those familiar with the culture interpret the meaning of the dance. The gestures of the hands and the feet are particularly expressive. But for those who are not familiar with this cultural art form, following the story and appreciating the finer points of the dancers’ technique may be a challenge.
Similarly, Cambodian classical music has been developing for centuries, so it may sound unusual to those hearing it for the first time.
“Music is culture specific,” said UCSB professor in the department of music and ethnomusicologist Scott Marcus. “If you live in the culture then you understand a lot of the things that create levels of meaning in the music. By definition we are outsiders looking in.”
And although the term classical music is commonly associated with Western classical music, Marcus emphasized that “Western classical music is only one of the classical musical traditions of the world.”
The ensemble visited several UCSB music, dance and design classes to help the students better appreciate classical Cambodian culture.
“The performance was hard to understand, but when they came to our class, I learned so much,” said first-year mathematics major Ellen Wirth-Foster after the musicians of the ensemble came to speak to her world music class. “I think that a very important part of their appearance here was coming and talking to our class so that we could understand what they were doing a little more.”
The ensemble thus helped UCSB students appreciate the rich variety of musical and dance traditions of the world. In addition to the fascinating technicality and skill of the performers, what stood out during the performance was the poignancy of the message being conveyed. By depicting the futility and destructiveness of reacting to disagreement with violence, The Lives of Giants production demonstrated that compassion and humanity is the only true path to ending a cycle of violence.