In ancient times, Cambodian Kings would conduct offerings of Robam Preah Reach Trop (Dance of the Royal Wealth) in an attempt to bridge the gap between the natural and spiritual worlds. Through this dance, which was a stylized performance of mythology, the kings believed that they could communicate with gods/divinities and ask them for their blessing to insure the fertility of the land and the well being of the kingdom.
In the 1970s, Pol Pot’s regime decimated this bridge between Cambodia and the Divine in more ways than the obvious. It is estimated that about 90% of all Cambodian artists were singled out and punished with death. The Court Ballet, as the dance was also called, almost died along with its practitioners, but was revived by the few surviving masters in the subsequent decades.
Sangam Arts will be presenting this dance form to California audiences this month, along with Bharatanatyam, in a program called “Dances of Devotion.”
“I was a child when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. My childhood was taken away; I lost my father and my two brothers,” says Charya Burt, master teacher, dancer and choreographer, who is one of the performers. “In a world filled with remarkable struggle and much hopelessness, dance was the only thing that provided me with a sense of hope and beauty. I was part of a generation of rebirth- I still feel a sense obligation to do whatever I can to try to promote, preserve and move forward this art form for many generations to come.”
Burt will be restaging her “Of Spirits Intertwined,” a piece that draws from Indian, Japanese, and Cambodian dance forms and explores the nature of spiritual offerings in each. For the Sangam Arts program, Burt will combine live singing, spoken words, and video imagery to present devotional reverence.
Presenting the other half of the program will be Lavanya Ananth, a bharatanatyam dancer and teacher of international acclaim. The history of bharatanatyam has been eventful too, from a nearly forgotten but controversial devadasi (Servant of God) culture, to its codification under royal patronage, and now to its revival in the last 100 years. Ananth will be presenting her own choreographic work depicting the spirituality in this South Indian dance form.
It is interesting that the two styles are being presented in a compare-and-contrast format; each will perform solos with perhaps a duet or two. The program promises a unique experience for each set of audiences and perhaps will seed their sensibilities with an appreciation for both.
Usha Srinivasan, co-founder of Sangam Arts confirms this, saying, “With Sangam Arts, my goal was to reach beyond the diaspora. I see the cultural silo-ing as a broader issue that needs to be addressed—one that isn’t limited to Indian American community. Sangam Arts was created to nurture meaningful connections between cultures using traditional arts as a platform. Bay Area has one of the most diverse populations in the United States and Sangam Arts was founded to tap into this potential. Dances of Devotion is a way to break through cultural walls. Charya and Lavanya are both fantastic artists and story-tellers, I cannot think of a more compelling pair.”
Community or social weaving is the goal and inspiration for most of the presentations by Sangam Arts thus far, including the 90 minute Spotlight lecture-demonstration series featuring non-Indian dances. Srinivasan provides examples:“We presented Spotlight on Folklorico featuring Los Lupenos (Mexican) in San Jose; We presented Mahea Uchiyama and her Halau (Hawaiian) in Santa Clara. We plan a Brazilian Samba/Capoeira presentation later this year at Triton Art Museum in Santa Clara.”
The most significant impact that Sangam Arts has already achieved in just two years since its founding, is when for the first time, all eight Indian dance traditions (bharatanatyam, kathak, kathakali, kuchipudi, manipuri, mohiniattam, odissi, and sattriya) were presented at San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival in early 2014. Expanding on this achievement, Srinivasan says, “I realized that arts enthusiasts and organizers are very interested in diverse traditions. It only needs the practitioners of these traditions to look up from their own cultures and communicate outward. Traditional arts as a platform, lends itself well to the kind of non-controversial, non-threatening interactions that are needed for building ties.”
Dances of Devotion certainly promises cross-cultural nourishment for the senses—an eye-opening look at the parallels between two traditions; both with linkages to temples, ancient royal patronage, and experiencing revival in recent decades.
Sept. 13, 4:30 p.m., Marin Showcase Theater, 10 Avenue Of The Flags, San Rafael. Sept. 19, 6 p.m., Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave, San Jose. devotion.brownpapertickets.com. Facebook.com/sangamartsorg. tickets.marincenter.org.