Cambodian Court Dance After Genocide: Embodied Heritage and the Limits of Critique

By Philip Geisler

During a seminar trip to Cambodia last year with the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, our group continuously encountered people engaged in creative practices – weaving traditional patterns into garments for social and ecological causes; performing traditional dance negotiating the trauma of genocide – whose ‘traditions’ are strongly tied to the colonial period and imaginations that have been authenticated as ancient cultural practices in the modern era. While scholars would usually criticize such artistic forms as “invented” and orientalized colonial productions of power, having seen the social value these forms have in Cambodia today, we were left irritated about what kind of effect this critique would have to those who find meaningful expressive ways in engaging with such art forms after the experience of genocide. What is the limit of critique and what is scholarship’s role in a context of formerly colonial and maybe even older social practices that today are so deeply tied to human bodies and healing?

Cover Photo by Nobuyuki Arai (2017). Provided courtesy of Sophiline Shapiro/Sophiline Arts Ensemble.

Dance is an especially omnipresent art form in Cambodia. While there are many different dance genres, the most celebrated, mediatized, but also most contested genre is lakhon luong, or Khmer royal court dance, which was inscribed in UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. In both national and international postulations, Cambodian royal court dance poses are often claimed to be part of an uninterrupted continuity of tradition that is allegedly proven by the 12th-century bas-reliefs of dancers at Angkor Wat. However, the types of dance performed in this period remain quite unknown. Nevertheless, it is Cambodia’s most revered artistic practice and materializes in manifold forms: in architectural reliefs, in traditionalized performances for tourists and official state receptions, in museum displays of early-20th-century dance practices and costumes, as well as in the work of sometimes more hidden dance companies that interweave the dance gestures of the past with new poses and meanings.

I was struck both by the persistence of the narrative of authenticity despite the many unknown trajectories of this cultural practice as well as the shortcomings of scholarly explanations of this tradition to be “invented.” Both contrasted sharply with the importance of and deep respect for this embodied practice and knowledge in present-day Cambodian society.

In my essay, I take up Mattijs van de Port’s and Birgit Meyer’s suggestion of looking at how heritage, which is always constructed, becomes orchestrated in a dynamic of authenticating politics and persuading aesthetics rather than stopping at the constructivist conclusion that heritage is invented. I examine how French colonial politics utilized a wide range of representational media, including drawing, photography, engraving, architecture, and world fair displays to create an aesthetic that persuaded constituencies in Europe and Southeast Asia to find a cultural essence in the genre’s form. Assessing the interplay of cultural practices based in embodiment and the epistemological system of representationalism that fosters absence and established Eurocentric categories for the arts, the essay traces the transregional process of authenticating dance as an intangible tradition in the colonial period.

The history of national reappropriation began in the 1940s. Viewed in a postcolonial theoretical perspective, this younger history of Cambodian dance challenges the assumption that cultural change in the 20th-century in a young Southeast Asian nation-state could only be implemented by turning towards the colonial legacy of the West. Assessing dance as embodied heritage, rather, requires a reassessment of the archive of dance and thus of the dominant paradigm of Westernization in cultural interpretations of the postcolonial period.

As an embodied and transformative archive, Khmer dance cannot be constricted to one static and homogenous form. Earlier scholarly claims of the existence of this single form and of its domination often and too narrowly stabilize officially authorized constructions of heritage. This focus on institutional narratives disregards the diverse and complex dance environment that is found in the country today and that forms an essential part of its archive and practice. In Cambodia’s post-genocide society, in which court dance has become nationalized heritage backed by UNESCO, the dance’s very status as world heritage in fact empowers contestations of its institutionally authorized forms. This potential of dance to serve as a form of activism that helps to heal trauma and socially emancipate marginalized groups continues to be constituted by this very heritagization established through its aesthetic intersection with architectural sites and manifold types of visual media. It is based on this heritage status that art activists can utilize a formerly colonial and now nationally and institutionally reclaimed dance form to address collective trauma and political concerns.

My essay ends with a consideration of how research can be pursued within this matrix. The approach I adopt in my essay toward studying culture in a postcolonial society that experienced the trauma of mass genocide reevaluates the relationship between critique and empathy as a scholarly paradigm. An empathetic criticism shifts the scholarly focus to non-institutional practices (and thus archives) in order to register how cultural forms have been appropriated and how they are given new agency and meaning by being intellectually reworked and artistically transformed in postcolonial frameworks. An empathetic criticism aims to understand why, today, forms of heritage such as court dance possess such a popular appeal in a specific historical space. In order to effectively comprehend this, scholarship has to reflect on the bias embedded in its secular critique in which some methodological patterns are so invested that they prevent the recognition of alternative, impactful meanings of cultural forms that are different from the conclusions that secular assumptions suggest.

When examining court dance through such regional legacies, our understanding will reach beyond secular (and Western) interpretations highlighting the derivative construction of tradition, colonial invention, and modern heritage, and rather recognize how dance might still be operating through a spiritual agency and how embodiment can counter fixed cultural readings and representations. While some critics have framed court dance mainly through a colonial framework, my approach questions the relevance of this interpretation for practitioners and Cambodian society at large, and emphasizes instead how intangible heritage is seen as a link to non-secular understandings of the world. Decolonizing knowledge in transregional research to me means acquiring empathy for a traumatized society, rather than merely undervaluing what this collective has produced and now holds as its heritage simply because it relies on cultural forms that were partly produced through colonialism. Instead of dismissing all forms of embodied practice as conclusively defined by a colonial apparatus, a paradigm reframed through empathy enables scholarship to see how local cultural actors have established their intellectual and creative presence through these complex cultural forms, thereby acknowledging their full aesthetic, political, and spiritual range. For Cambodia, an empathetic criticism can show how this reclaimed and recreated heritage has enabled healing.


Philip Geisler, “Cambodian Court Dance After Genocide : Embodied Heritage and the Limits of Critique”, Essays of the Forum Transregionale Studien Vol. 6, 4A_Lab (2020), DOI: 10.25360/01-2020-00008.


Philip Geisler is a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies. In his dissertation, he assesses representationalism, performance, and contemporary configurations of nationalism through theorizing forms of heritage displayed through Islamic art museums. He obtained a degree in journalism and media economics at the Medienakademie Berlin before studying art history, Islamic studies, and political science at the Freie Universität Berlin and at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. From 2013 until 2019, he worked at the Forum Transregionale Studien for Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, a collaborative research program of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (Max-Planck-Institut) and the Forum. As a music dramaturg, he has served as advisor to the managing director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and manages ensembles in contemporary jazz and trans-traditional music.


Citation: Philip Geisler, Cambodian Court Dance After Genocide: Embodied Heritage and the Limits of Critique, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.09.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24932.


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