The dance performance “Agangamasor,” a new show by the Cambodian Buddhist Society, played in Washington last week, adding a new dimension to a classic story.
The dance tells of a royal guard in Preah Eysor’s palace, Agangamasor, who becomes frustrated with the torments of visiting devadas and eventually turns on his royal patron.
Agangamasor uses a magical diamond finger given to him by Preah Eysor to banish the devadas to the end of the universe, and the king fears his royal guard is plotting to overthrow him. He flees, and the God of Justice, Preah Noreay, decides Agangamasor and his evil soul must be vanquished.
Preah Noreay transforms himself into a beautiful celestial dancer, a woman named Tepapsar, luring Agangamasor to fall in love with her. She tricks him out of the diamond finger, without which Agangamasor is no match for the god.
Before he is destroyed, however, Agangamasor wishes to be reborn with great power—with 100 heads and 1,000 arms—a wish Preah Noreay grants him. Preah Noreay brags that he himself will be reborn as a human with one head and two arms, able to destroy his foe.
It comes to pass, and Agangamasor reincarnates as the all-powerful demon Ravana, ruler of the Kingdom of Lanka. Preah Noreay comes back as Rama, and their battles continue in the Ramayana.
Behind the story is Mani Meas Masady, the show’s artistic director and dancer, choreographer and teacher. She was one of the first students to be educated at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh after its peacetime reopening. After graduating, she taught as a dance professor at the school and later moved to Maryland.
In the performance, Mani Meas Masady dances as Preah Noreay—known as Vishnu in Hindu mythology.
“My dedication and expertise keep Cambodian classical dance alive,” the choreographer told VOA Khmer in an interview. “Under my leadership, the group has performed in many places in the US, including the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, State Department, and George Washington University, and at UNHCR’s World Refugee Day, hosted by UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie.”
Helen Jessup, president of Friends of Khmer Culture, said after the show she was excited that the group was preserving a great Southeast Asian tradition, while simultaneously creating something new.
“I saw dances in Washington at the annual celebration around the New Year several years ago but have never seen this professional troop,” she said. “They are very impressive. It is very exciting to see this happening here, because it means that the link between Cambodians who immigrated to the US and Cambodians who are in Cambodia will strengthen because there will be the continuity and the spreading of the wonderful culture of Cambodia.”
Suwanna Gauntlett, country director of the Cambodia Wildlife Alliance, who has seen many performances in Cambodia over the past 10 years, called “Agangamasor” “by far the most beautiful, very fresh, very delightful performance that I have ever seen.”
For Judy Kusek, an official at the World Bank in Washington, this was her first performance of Cambodian dance.
“I really enjoyed it, and you really don’t get to see this very often in Washington,” she said. “It is a real special treat for me.”
Cynthia Way, an American who adopted a baby girl from Cambodia eight years ago, said she wanted her daughter, Lina, to grow up knowing her culture.
“She has been dancing for 3 years now, and as a result we’ve been becoming increasingly more involved in the Cambodian community,” Way said.
Mani Meas Masady said that teaching Cambodian classical dance to a new generation allowed her to connect with younger Cambodian-Americans and “to show the world the richness of the Cambodian culture of the 12th Century, which was a big asset to mankind.”