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