Primate Dancing
By: Ly Vanna.Photos Courtesy of Soeur Thavarak ( August, 2002 Volume 2 No.8 )

The word for monkey in Khmer is Sva. Since the beginnings of Khmer civilization the monkey dance and performance have held important significance. The depictions are from the Ream Ke (the Khmer version of the Indian Ramayana). The main characters can be classified as either representing Hanuman - the Monkey God who is shown as white, or the simple soldier monkeys. It is a well-known fact that this type of performance is very difficult to perfect because the performer must behave like a real monkey. In fact, this is the case to such an extent, that to be an exceptional dancer, one must almost become a monkey. Technically, to be a good monkey performer, the scene, the monkey character, the style, and the music must gel together of the monkey is one that Mr. Soeur Thavarak knows only too well. He has been a monkey dancer for over 12 years. He also teaches Lakhorn Khorl - a type of Khmer theatre in which all the performers are masked, at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. "I observe the monkey to learn their behavior so I can mimic it. I discover new patterns of behavior that maintain my styles and help me teach these to my students." When he was a student, in the 1980's, he would go to Wat Phnom and watch the monkeys there to gain inspiration for his performance. In 1993 Mr. Thavarak and his colleagues decided to divide the monkey performance into two types of display: Sva Kbach (that means literally monkey performance) and Sva Porll (that literally means monkey soldier.) Sva Kbach is more dance orientated and involves an open - chested stance. The representation is that of Hanuman (the white monkey God in the Ream Ke) and is always the commander of the soldiers. This style is more difficult to perform and is more tiring than Sva Porll.
Sva Porll is born more out of direct mimicry of real monkeys. The representations are those of soldier monkeys. It is the unique nature of these styles and gestures that has meant that Monkey Performance has become a famous Cambodian cultural export. Performers have traveled the globe showing the beauty of this cultural heritage, for example in the United States, Australia, France, Canada, Italy, and other Asian countries. At the Royal University of Fine Arts the performer start to learn their lessons from Grade Three: between the ages of eight to twelve years old. They have to be physically fit and must have the patience and passion to study the art form for nine years. Nowadays female performers are not taught, however in the past there have been female performers. "My mother used to perform as a monkey performer in 1950s-60s but now she is over 60 years old" Mr. Thavarak remembers. He continues to outline the syllabus: "I always teach them both monkey dancing styles and monkey characters. They are also taught in the basics of Khmer traditional dancing, giant dancing, poetry, music, composing, and some kinds of theatre." Mr. Thavarak notes the change in personality of his students: "Normally, the behavior of the students changes somewhat before and after training. They are more active than they were before the class but at the same time they are more polite." The students will also receive training in the rhythm of music and its implications for dance, writing skills and also a degree of moral advise from their teacher. They will need all of their skills. Their genre of entertainment is arguably one of the hardest. It takes strength, stamina and commitment to achieve good results. Perhaps the most important virtue to have is that of patience, so precise and stylized that one must take the time to learn and practice.

Sva Kbach = 3 styles:
Leading troops - one hand on the knee and one behind the back holding a knife, walking forwards whilst squatting.
Fighting - one hand pushed forward at head height and one held above and behind the head holding a knife.
Inspecting troops - hands on thighs and moving sideways whilst squatting facing his soldiers.

Other gestures include laughing - covering the eyes and face with moving fist, whilst moving the head from side to side and hopping from leg to leg.

Sva Porll = 10 walking styles:
Youl Chomheang - walking sideways on all fours.
Sorntoh Kha’erk - walking sideways on two legs .
Kha’erk Load - jumping forward, like a crow.
Doeu Tea - walking like a duck.
Doeu Dai - walking on two hands.
Doeu Choeung Pi - walking forwards on two legs.
Doeu Choeung Bei - walking on two legs and an arm, in a diagonal direction.
Doeu Choeung Bei - walking on two legs and one arm, moving forwards.
Doeu Cheung Buon - walking forwards on all fours.
Doeu Cheung Buon - walking forwards on all fours.

There are also ten running styles. These are adaptations of the walking styles with some exceptions. In the case of Doeu Dai - it is impossible to run on ones hands. Thus, they do Roit Thea - running as a duck. This actually consists of two styles: running shuffling the feet and running scraping the ground to the side. In total, there are 40 gestures of Sva Kbach and 50 gestures of Sva Porl performance, including salutation style and the lightly scratching style.