It’s made itself known to me so much as of late. On January 20th, 2011 — on my 24th birthday — my father was taken away from this world by a liver cancer that overtook his body. And just yesterday, at the end of a highly-charged TED conference, I returned to my hotel room to find out that Soth Sam On, my dance teacher’s teacher, had passed away.
Farewell, my dear grandmother of the arts.
Soth Sam On prepares part of a classical dance headdress at the Chan Chhaya Pavilion in Cambodia’s royal palace in 1991. Photo by James Wasserman.
I cannot tell you when and where she was born. Or who her parents are. Or how she felt watching the last hints of blue disappear as night overcame the city. Most of what I have are fragments of interactions and experiences passed on to me from my teacher who referred to the revered woman as Mak Om Leas (Mother-Aunt Leas).
Lok Yey Leas (Grandmother Leas), as I know her, studied classical dance with her teacher Lok Khun Mith in Cambodia’s royal palace. She later became the leading performer of demon roles from the 1950s – 1970s. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime — a horrific, four-year genocide that destroyed much of Cambodia’s social, cultural, and educational infrastructure — Lok Yey Leas became one of the few surviving Khmer classical dance artists who taught at the newly reopened School of Fine Arts. She worked to rebuild her country, revive its soul and spirit through her art practice. And in doing so, she gave voice and life to the next generation of Khmer artists.
Neak Kru Sophiline, the leading choreographer of Cambodian classical dance, is one of them.
As a teenage boy, I usually ended dance lessons at Neak Kru Sophiline’s over dinner. And quite often, Neak Kru dissected and magnified our small, mundane gestures into metaphors for living life. Eating noodles became lessons on scarcity and abundance; cooking rice became a talk about maturity and growth. And more often than not, she would also share anecdotes about her relationship with Lok Yey Leas.
The old woman was known to be strict and demanding, inspiring a mixture of fear and respect and adoration in students. One time, frustrated at the lack of focus from her other students, she took a drum stick and hit a young Neak Kru Sophiline in the hand as a warning to the others and, perhaps confusing to some, as a gesture of love, as a way to push her favorite and most promising student (who maintained position, only responding to the pain in silent tears).
Later on in life, Lok Yey asked Neak Kru Sophiline not to marry so that she may devote her life to dance. And when Neak Kru Sophiline prepared to leave socialist Cambodia with her American husband John in the early ’90s, Lok Yey called Neak Kru off to the side — away from the laughter of those around, away from other activity — and placed a portrait of herself in her student’s hand. She loved Neak Kru like a daughter and here was the young woman before her, preparing to drift away into her own world.
Neak Kru Sophiline Cheam Shapiro at the Chan Chhaya Pavilion in 1991. Photo by James Wasserman.
I’m not sure if I am forgetting anything Neak Kru told me. I’ve just come back from Cambodia, just walked the snowy streets of New York for the first time, just returned to Los Angeles and split paths from a lover, just had my father die, just left school and moved back to Long Beach, just got a new job, just finished the TED conference, just had Lok Yey pass — in less than two months, my realities have transformed significantly and, amidst so much change, I am reminded of the fragility of human memory. And what becomes so clear is that our bodies — vessels of history, books of experience — are equally fragile.
Just two days earlier, around the time of Lok Yey’s last moments, I found myself disheartened at the TED conference. There were so many faces and I often felt out of place amongst a sea of techies and venture capitalists. So much of what I was working with — spirit, history, culture, love, rights — was intangible and the thing that I had to offer, unlike the newest gadget, could not be given or sold to the viewer as it is something carried within and activating the body. It is only shared with viewers by the dancer and it dies the moment it is being performed. I found many of the TED presentations to be questionable in nature and quality and often imagined, in their place, different bodies of knowledge and ways of being that could better transform the audience, our communities, and our world, could better serve as epistemic mines from which to draw upon to inspire and catalyze healthy, ground-breaking ways of seeing, approaching, making, and changing.
What if I had those twenty minutes to talk about the science of ritual or politics of devotional art? What if the art and music programming was more than breaks and breaths of entertainment from the rest of the programming? What if the presenters were more emotionally captivating? What if other, less publicized histories could have that attention? What if, what if…
Silent tears fell before my new friends and mentors as I tried to explain my shortcomings with the experience. I had come with so much hope to share myself, share the art of Cambodian classical dance, and share the realities and needs and possibilities of the traditional arts community. I had come with so much vision and was hurt by my own unhealthy, unrealistic desire and expectation to have it all manifest in a matter of days.
After the concluding event of the TED conference, I walked back hand-in-hand to the hotel with my new sister of the arts, Sey Min (she is just one of the other forty-eight TED Fellows of whom I absolutely respect and admire). Paired with the difficulties of separation after an intense and beautiful beginning, the sense of failing my community and world seemed to pull my spirit down further and further. I was drowning as I made my way to my room where I checked my phone to find news of Lok Yey’s death.
“Prum let u know about master dance.grandmother Sot Sormon(Leas)she pass away.”
Tears fell instantly. Tears of sadness, tears of smallness, tears of fear, tears of hopelessness, tears of loss, tears of being alone — tears of duty and understanding and awareness.
When I first met Lok Yey Leas three years ago, I got on my knees and placed my hands together in prayer before her feet. Neak Kru said to her in Khmer, “Mak Om, this is my student Prum. He is my only male student.” Lok Yey, weak and frail, one of her eyes blind, looked at me and said, “What is there [to say]? He is beautiful.”
Lok Yey accepted me despite the fact that my face and body were scarred, despite the fact that I was not born in Cambodia, despite the fact that I was a man, despite the fact that I was gay. Maybe I was not able to gain much visibility and attention at TED. Maybe the residency space for non-profit organizations dedicated to traditional performing art forms I had hoped to realize will not happen today or this year or five years from now. But until then, I will work to share the life of Lok Yey Leas and the art form she, my teacher, and I have chosen to serve.
Rest in peace dearest Lok Yey. The art to which you gave your life was nearly destroyed, nearly wiped off the face of this world by miseducated and misled radicals. But you and your peers worked to keep this lineage alive, reminded the world that a powerful, resilient beauty can live in the face of haunting destruction and loss. Neak Kru will now carry on your work and so will I, her student, and later my students and so on. We will keep this art and science, philosophy and ritual — we will keep this magic alive. Thank you, thank you so much, you gem of the human heritage!
I end this note by drawing a line between you, Neak Kru, and myself:
Watch Lok Yey Leas play as the storm demon, Ream Eyso, in one of the most sacred works of the canon. She appears around 2:45.
Munkul Lokey/Shir Ha-Shirim is one of my favorite pieces of choreography by Neak Kru Sophiline. It is performed by two of her dancers from the Khmer Arts Ensemble, the next generation of Cambodian classical dance artists. The choreography is wonderfully entangled, sensual and erotic, layered on and punctuating John Zorn’s lush combination of Hebrew and vocals.
Love Me Rachana, by me.