Southeast Asian Dancers Illuminate New Course
(Clockwise from left) Che Chankethya, Bhagawan Ciptoning, and Umesh Shetty. (Photos courtesy of the Center for Intercultural Performance.)

By Angilee Shah, Staff Writer

Southeast Asian Dancers Illuminate New Course

A theory course in the Department of World Arts and Culture brings practicing dancers from Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia into the classroom.

This is not something you can read in a textbook or on the Internet. --Judy Mitoma, professor of dance

UCLA students have a rare chance this quarter to take a course in Southeast Asian dance theory co-taught by three prominent dancers from Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The World Arts and Culture course, with a syllabus that mirrors the strengths of the visiting artists, will take students through the dance of Java and Cambodia, as well as Indian dance as it is performed in Malaysia.

The dancers are here as fellows in the UCLA Choreographers/Arts Management (CAM) program, a cultural exchange that brings three artists here and will send three U.S.-based fellows abroad next winter. CAM is run by the Center for Intercultural Performance (CIP) in the Department of World Arts and Culture.

"This kind of fellowship is really something we hope will be mutually beneficial for the artists and the students here," says Emiko Susilo, program coordinator for CAM. Susilo says that the program is particularly significant because the visiting fellows will learn to manage, promote, and raise funds for Southeast Asia's diverse artistic community.

This year, the CAM fellowship sponsored, in addition to the three dancers, an arts manager, Suon Bun Rith. Rith is the Cultural Coordinator for a Cambodian nonprofit organization called Amrita Performing Arts. He does what he calls "backstage support" in a country that has faced many challenges to preserving traditional forms of dance.

Of 21 theater and dance forms, over half have been lost in Cambodia's prolonged wars, according to Rith. While artistic endeavors endure in the country, not a single formal theater has survived the poverty and violence that marks Cambodia's history. During the genocidal campaigns of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, dancers and artists were among the millions killed and displaced. The Yale Cambodian Genocide Project estimates that 1.7 million Cambodians were executed or starved to death between 1975 and 1979.

Rith says that his goals for his 11-week stay at UCLA are to learn about professional management and to establish a network that can help him and Amrita preserve the traditional dances of Cambodia.

Cambodian dancer Chey Chankethya agrees that it is very important to learn skills not only in dance, but in promoting and fundraising for the arts. She has trained for nine years in traditional dance and teaches younger dancers at Royal University of the Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. "Culture is the soul of our nation," she explains. Developing and preserving that culture 27 years after the fall of Khmer Rouge is absolutely critical before a new generation loses the traditions completely, she says.

Experiencing Culture

"The beauty of dance," Judy Mitoma tells her students on the first day of the winter quarter, "is that it is about human exchange. It lives in the body; it lives in the experience."

Mitoma, CIP director and professor in the Department of World Arts and Culture, says music can be read in notes and performances come on DVD, but learning to dance means connecting with people. The "Dance of Southeast Asia" course will feature sessions with dancers, in which students can learn basic movements and internalize the styles they read and hear about in lectures.

"This is not something you can read in a textbook or on the Internet," Mitoma says.

This kind of human exchange seems to be an apt way to learn about cultures in Southeast Asia. As a region of islands and oceanic boundaries, it has a history of contact with many cultures both in conflict and in peace.

That kind of contact is evident in Umesh Shetty, CAM fellow from Malaysia, who combines Indian classical with contemporary dance. Shetty has studied in India, Malaysia, and Australia and has been trained in five Indian forms—Kathakai, Manipuri, Bharata Natyam, Odissi, and Kathak—as well as in ballet and modern dance.

Shetty says living in Malaysia, away from the masters and keepers of old traditions, gives him the freedom to take a more progressive approach to Indian dance. Progress is crucial because "to preserve culture is to accept changes." Traditions, Shetty explains, must change with societies, lest they end up in museums as icons of the past.

Indonesian dancer Bhagawan Ciptoning practices Javanese dance and teaches at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts. The ceremonial dances he draws from evolved through the palaces of Javanese sultans and have been influenced by Dutch colonizers of the 19th century and the island's contact with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Ciptonig says his dance is inspired by the realities of his surroundings, rooted in his environment and day-to-day life. European influences, for example, have brought drums to the more traditional gamelan music to which he dances.

"The Dutch and Javanese were at war, but the music and dance were together," he says.

The "Dance in Southeast Asia" course is cross-listed in World Arts and Cultures as 112B and 245.

In addition to teaching and taking classes, the CAM fellows will perform on Friday, Jan. 20 in the Glorya Kaufaman Dance Theater at UCLA. The evening, called "Can You Hear Me? Asian Dance Voices," features first-time Los Angeles programs and tickets cost $10 to $16.

"It's really unusual to see Cambodian, Malaysian and Javanese together on the same night, on the same stage," says Susilo. The performance, she says, will be a unique opportunity to connect very diverse communities.

Published: Tuesday, January 17, 2006