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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cambodia - The Monkey God’s last dance: Bidding a Lakhon Khol master farewell

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After the troupe of young boys had performed the Monkey Dance, and a group of Apsara dancers had left the stage, 67-year-old Royal University of Fine Arts professor Proeung Chhieng stepped up, shoulders hunched, to the microphone to address the several hundred mourners. Behind him, at the top of an elaborate funeral pyre set up in a field at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, was the body of his friend and teacher, Yit Sarin, who passed away at 91 on Saturday night. 
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“Today, at his funeral, I am so sad to lose someone so valuable for the country,” Chhieng told Post Weekend at the funeral on Monday. “However, I am also happy to see his students, for whom he devoted great effort in teaching, at his funeral … We are preparing to carry on his legacy and complete his unfinished mission.”
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Born on July 1, 1925, Sarin is renowned for being the first male dancer in Cambodia’s Royal Ballet and was the last surviving custodian of the knowledge, history and practice of the Khmer masked theatre dance known as Lakhon Khol. With his death, many fear an irreplaceable loss to the Kingdom’s cultural heritage. 
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Practitioners of the masked dance, relatives, and Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phuong Sakonga paid their respects at the funeral service, but the overwhelming majority of those present were students at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, where Yit Sarin’s cremation was held. 
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All recalled Yit Sarin as a uniquely powerful teacher, dedicated to preserving and passing on the knowledge of Lakhon Khol.
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“To be honest, we could not afford such a big funeral, but his students, who adore him, have put together the money to make it happen,” his 62-year-old daughter Kao Amry told Post Weekend
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“He was both a family man and a great artist,” said cousin Sith Sothea, 50.
Sothea’s orphaned father was raised by Yit Sarin during the post independence Sangkum period, she said, and after the Pol Pot regime, when Sothea and her brother were orphaned, Yit Sarin took them in as well. “He adored his family and relatives, as much as he adored Lakhon Khol.”
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His only surviving son, 19-year-old Sarin Vathanak, recalled the utter devotion his father had for passing on the knowledge of the art form, even at the end of his life.
“My father had taught Lakhon Khol all his life until he was bedridden in 2015,” he said, weak from emotion. “I am grief-stricken to lose my father, but also proud of him.”
Grandpa White
Born “Keo Sar”, Sarin changed his name during the Khmer Rouge regime, although he later became known simply as Lok Ta Sar (Grandpa White) – a nod to his signature role: the Hindu deity Hanuman, who is represented as a white monkey.
The dramatic pre-Angkorian dance form involves masked characters performing episodes of the Reamker – the Khmer version of the Hindu epic Ramayana – while a director, speaking and singing in three distinct “voices”, narrates the play over music.
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According to Professor Aok Bunthoeun, vice dean of the Faculty of Choreographic Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts, the theatre was practiced in palaces and pagodas for centuries, but only by one gender. 

“In the Royal Palace, it was said that officials would be jealous if male dancers were next to female dancers, so the male dancers of Lakhon Khol were relegated to pagodas,” he said. 
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 But this all changed in 1940 when Queen Sisowath Kossamak called Yit Sarin and three other boys from the Wat Svay Andet pagoda in Kandal to perform the Monkey Dance for three days at the Royal Palace. Delighted with the performance, she put the four under the tutelage of Royal Ballet master Mam Yan. However, all but Yit Sarin grew homesick and left the palace. 
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From that “revolutionary” moment, Bunthoeun said, the Royal Ballet became the first Lakhon Khol troupe with both men and women on stage, although the roles of men would be limited to monkey characters and “the hermit” in the Reamker. 
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Beyond establishing himself as a master of the art, teaching subsequent generations of dancers, Yit Sarin served as King Norodom Sihanouk’s personal assistant (or his Moha Tlik) during his quest for independence, for which he received several Royal Honours.