*This post was originally published on Cambodian Living Arts blog October 2020
Across the world, every culture has its own ways of paying respect to the past. Sampeas Kru, in Cambodia, is a blessing ceremony typically done at the beginning of a performance to honor the spirits of teachers passed who transmitted their knowledge to the next generations.
This week, before the first performance of the 2020 Cultural Season “Expressing Identities: Them & Us,” we, at Cambodian Living Arts, invited artists, staff and volunteers to participate in a Sampeas Kru ceremony at our stage at the National Museum of Cambodia. What took place can be described as diverse meetings in many senses; not just regarding artistic practices, but of generations and identities.
In words and videos, we would like to bring you into the vibrant community of artists welding the rich history of Cambodian culture with the contemporary spirit of self-expression through a glimpse of the Cultural Season’s Sampeas Kru ceremony.
Sampeas Kru Ceremony in Words and Videos
The ceremony began like many others I had attended in Cambodia. The Achar – a spiritual intermediary between the people and the Buddhist monkhood – chanted to the sounds of traditional music. But unlike many ceremonies, rather than collaborating with a recording, a live band played traditional Khmer instruments. The Achar sat at the center of the stage in the respectful manner of legs bent to one side while facing a table displaying masks worn during Lakhaon Khaol rituals. Offerings of food and drink adorned with incense and candles were set in parallel lines on either side of him creating a barrier between him and the many performers who sat in the same position with heads slightly bowed in prayer. On the Achar’s left, artists wore traditional Khmer ceremonial clothes. While on the right, the performers of the ethnic minority Kuoy, sat in their traditional bright purple attire.
The transitions of the ceremony were seamless. While witnessing this performance for the spirits, I became aware that the dancers in traditional Khmer dress had risen and were now moving methodically on the stage holding the offerings that had separated them from the Achar. With absolute grace the performers moved from movement and moment to the next. They rearranged the offerings on the red and purple colored mats and when they had finished, those of us seated in the audience made our way to the stage and began to throw puffed rice over the Achar, the mats, offerings and artists. During the ceremony, the ancestors are called to us from their places beyond and this act of throwing the white puffed rice returns them to from where they came. Once we finished sending the ancestors back, the traditional Khmer dancers resumed their movements and two distinguished themselves to perform the well-known monkey character from Khmer classical dance.
As the traditional Khmer dancers left the stage, the Achar turned to the Kouy artists and asked them to perform their dance for the ancestors. At this moment, our Founder, Arn Chorn-Pond noted to me the inquisitive looks on everyone’s faces as we watched the Kouy performance. Though Cambodia is a small country, not everyone has the privilege or financial means to access freedom of movement, even within the country. Unfortunately the Kouy people from Steung Treng are not an exception, making their presence a rare meeting of cultural practices. It was clear their movements were different from the Khmer dance but perhaps the emphasis on hand gestures and backwardly bent fingers showed the proximity of the two cultures since long ago.
From here, one by one, the Achar called to the stage the artists exhibiting during the Cultural Season to perform a highlight of their performances as tribute to the ancestors.
With the Achar still seated in the middle of the stage, two young dancers performing Dark took their places beside him. As they made their first gestures the room had an energy shift and we all began to contemplate the simultaneously familiar and ambiguous language of contemporary dance. Dark’s main theme probes the complex path of self-discovery and the tension of this journey was conveyed by the intertwining of the young performers’ acrobatic movements.
Next, the Achar called Root to the stage. However, no one took the stage. Rather, a woman began singing an almost sorrowful song while standing in the pews. When I turned to see her, I realized she was accompanied by three other dancers. All of them were wearing traditional dress, they made their way through the crowd and to the stage when she finished her song. Another contemporary piece, Root blends six styles of artistic movement: classical, folk, khaol, yike, lakhaon bassac and circus. The circus influence portion of the dance shocked some of the elder artists present and even brought a smile to the Achar. I can only wonder what our elders thought seeing a young person in traditional clothes leaping hands first over a chair.
Two of the same elders then were beckoned by the Achar to the stage. An interprovince collaboration, the elders prepared a song on the arts and environment that told of how they didn’t have plastic in their youth as a warning to be mindful about consumption. Before yeay sang and lok ta played the khen, they made greetings to the Achar and crowd with hands pressed together.
The last two tributes to the ancestors were two theater performances: Darkness in the Light and Grandpa’s Chapei. Darkness in the Light showed a sliver of the challenges facing a family surviving in a garbage dump after the war, while Grandpa’s Chapei tells the strife of a grandson struggling to champion his grandfather’s instrument in modern times. Besides themes of struggle, the two plays shared the incredible ability to momentarily transform the theater space into their worlds without using any backdrops.
Throughout the Sampeas Kru, my mind kept dancing between the notions of ceremony and performance. As the artists performed their crafts, the Achar acted as spiritual intermediary between the living and deceased masters, very much conducting the living to perform for the dead. At the end of the ceremony, with help of my colleague, Daly, I asked the Achar what he thought about the meeting of contemporary performance and traditional ceremony. He said that he felt excited and moved to tears inside because he could feel the spirits accepted the new masters.
In the United States, originating from the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a popular saying:
I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams.
After witnessing this tribute to our ancestors, I too was moved nearly to tears at the leaps and bounds of Cambodian creativity. What I saw, in real-time, was the arts as intergenerational healing.
More information on the Cultural Season can be found here.