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Dec 22

Performing Culture, Tourism Spectacles and Authenticity

Khmer Culture, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

This is the metanarrative of my previous post, I suppose, so perhaps you’d better take a read of that one first, if this is to make sense.

No matter how mesmerizing I found the apsara dancers and the Cambodian musicians who appeared each day at the Amansara hotel, sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing traditional instruments such as the khim, I couldn’t help but contemplate the nature of tourism spectacles, of performances that are artificially constructed and commodified for the tourist gaze, and the whole notion of authenticity when we travel.

No matter how exquisite the performances and how much they revealed about Cambodian culture, history and art, I could never be completely pulled in by their pure beauty. I wrote about the aloofness of the apsara in my last post, yet no matter how enchanted I was – and I think I’ve used that word a lot to describe our experiences at Angkor and Siem Reap – I wasn’t enthralled.

I couldn’t simply feel as I watched, as I often can when I experience some kind of cultural performance. I had to think as well. And it was always the place and staging of the performance, the construction (or lack) of our tourist gaze, and the ways in which tourists perform that I thought about.

The first time we saw an apsara performance it was in the Amansara’s library, bright lights on, a bookcase crammed with coffee table books and bestsellers, and tourism brochures in plastic display holders on a shelf. While the performances felt more real in a way, as there was just the raw talent of the artists to consider, dramatic lighting and being cocooned in the darkness of a theatre would have done a lot to draw us in as an audience and concentrate our gaze.

By contrast, the performance at La Residence d’Angkor hotel, which included a repertoire of Cambodian folk dances, took place on an outdoor stage by the restaurant, the garden in darkness, the performers theatrically lit. Yet here there was a different distraction, not an unexpected setting, but rather the frenetic activity of tourists.

Cameras and video recorders in hands, they busied themselves with documenting the event, elbowing each other out of the way, blocking their neighbours vision, camera flashes popping, and generally disrupting the dinner of those who wanted to enjoy their meal and the pleasure of the performance.

While the folk dances were charming – the dancers dressed up as farmers, peasants, hunters, fishermen, and animals; the men performing as many roles as the women – and I’d heard that Cambodians perform these dances for themselves on holidays, that they don’t exist purely for tourists, the event still felt staged in a very artificial way because of the performance of the tourists.

The fact that the show took place in an expensive restaurant and there were no Cambodians in the audience (unlike this folkloric event in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico that was mainly enjoyed by Mexicans), only added to the artificiality. Seeing the folk dances performed on a holiday in a village or neighbourhood would have made it more authentic. But most of us don’t get that opportunity unfortunately.

So is it better to experience culture that is constructed and commodified, to see performances that are staged for tourists, and to see tourists perform abysmally, than not to experience them at all? Or should we just be satisfied with ambling about the ruins admiring the apsara dancers carved into the temple walls? What do you think?

4 comments

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  1. Jack

    I have friends in Scotland who play the bagpipes. Sometimes they perform in hotels where the majority of the audience are ‘foreign’ tourists.

    They don’t have a problem with this. It’s a job and they earn money from doing what they love. They also appreciate if the people watching them respond enthusiastically.

    I suppose my point is that our views don’t really matter. The views of the person performing is what’s important.

    Watching traditional performances in an authentic setting wins out every day over a more artificial performance in a hotel or restaurant. But if performing for tourists puts food on a family’s table then it’s fine by me…whether it’s my scene or not.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Jack – thanks for your perspective on the subject. The dancers and musicians we met in Siem Reap were earning comparatively good money, and were obviously enjoyed what they were doing. There’s no denying these performances can be fascinating and fun, and, look, I’d certainly prefer to experience them – tourist circus and all – than not to experience them. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Shobha

    I agree that if the performers had to wait for “authentic” performances, they may not be able to perform very often, if at all. The truly talented may be off on the national stage or whatever. However, there are still locals who are very good who can make a living doing something they like to do and also preserve their cultural heritage. I don’t have a problem with staged for tourists acts – it brings tradition and employment to more people.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Shobha – totally agree with you. We saw an apsara performance just recently for the first time in months, and it really is special, as staged as it is. It not only provides an insight into Khmer history and culture – both the history of classical apsara dance as well as folkloric dance – but it also shows off the artistic talents of these young people, whom for many tourists are just waiters and tuk tuk drivers until they see an apsara show. Thanks for dropping by!

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