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‘Heavenly Flower, Earth Poem’: A Quest for Identity

Colin Grafton / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Sompea Kru ceremony with Japanese dance students, Hitomi and Om Yuvanna (Tokyo, 2008). Colin Grafton

On August 16, the performance of ‘Bopha Suo Chomrieng Lorkei’ (Heavenly Flower, Earth Poem) will take place at the Royal University of Fine Arts. One and a half years in the making, the performance involves nine Japanese dancers and at least six Cambodians. Colin Grafton profiles Hitomi Yamanaka, one of the Japanese dancers, who studied Khmer dance at RUFA and became one of the first foreigners to attain professional status in the art.

Hitomi Yamanaka was born in Tokyo in the 1960s into a conservative middle class family. Japan, by this time, had recovered from the Second World War and was entering a period of resurgence and optimism. Materially, the Japanese were beginning to experience an unprecedented period of wealth, comfort and economic stability.

The year 1964 saw both the birth of the Shinkansen (‘bullet train’) and the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics. There was increasing cultural influence from the West, especially in the forms of fashion, music and art. It was also the age of Yukio Mishima, the brilliant writer who was also a champion of Japanese tradition, the so-called ‘samurai spirit’. He committed hara-kiri in 1970 as a symbolic act of protest against subversive Western influence. For him it was “a death marked by elegance”. Meanwhile, the young generation were enjoying the Ventures, the Beatles and John Coltrane.

Hitomi Yamanaka (right) performing Moni Mekhala dance at Japanese Noh Theatre in Tokyo (2008). Photo: Colin Grafton

Hitomi’s father was, she says, a ‘feudally-inclined’ Buddhist who wore kimono at home, and her mother was a Christian. She first began to learn Japanese traditional dance at the age of four, but there was no traditional dance class at high school, so she practised the martial art Kendo instead.

As she reached her teens, an introvert torn between her upbringing in a ‘feudalistic’ atmosphere and the appeal of the apparent freedom embodied in the ‘hippie’ movement, Hitomi was experiencing an identity crisis. She could find no outlet to express what she was feeling, and this frustration began to manifest itself in the form of eating disorders which brought her sickness during her late teens. From this, she learned the importance of her body; to be able to achieve anything, she had to keep her physical health. She started writing poetry, and she decided to study philosophy. However, she discovered that this involved reading mountains of very boring books, not what she had imagined at all; so she switched to ‘History of Art’.

When she was 21, her close friend killed himself, and she was profoundly distressed. To alleviate depression which verged on the suicidal, she took a course in social welfare and devoted herself to work in a home for educationally sub-normal children. She quit that job in her late twenties because she needed to find her ‘roots’ somewhere beyond the sphere of Japanese and Western culture. So, in 1991 she went to Okinawa. In the dance and music there, she finally found her ‘Asian identity’. She was drawn to the traditional arts rather than popular culture. Although she was attracted by innovation and originality, she felt that creativity could still flourish “within the glass …”

As we talked, Hitomi pointed to three glasses on the table. Actually, they all contained water and appeared identical but, she said, you could fill them with liquids of different colours or flavours, and infinite variety was possible…but the glasses themselves would never change their forms. The glass is what the Japanese call “kata”; the form, the style which has been inherited from our ancestors.

After Okinawa, Hitomi decided, much to her father’s disapproval, to travel around the rest of Asia. She went to Indonesia, Bali, Malaysia and India, looking for the traditional dance form which would satisfy her need for expression, and the teacher who could inspire her. In Chiangmai, Thailand, she became interested in Thai dance, and it was there in 1993 that she first saw Khmer classical dance, performed by a visiting Cambodian dancer. It attracted her for two reasons: first, its calmness, its intrinsic spirituality and secondly, no other Japanese was studying it, so she could be the first to do so.

Hitomi and her teacher Yuvanna at rehearsal (Phnom Penh, 2018). Photo: Colin Grafton

In 1996, Hitomi’s father died, and she returned to Japan. She continued to learn Thai dance in Japan, but was not satisfied; but then she met Preoung Chhieng, a Cambodian dance teacher, who encouraged her to study Khmer classical dance. So in 1997 she came to Phnom Penh, where she studied Khmer dance at RUFA (Royal University of Fine Arts) until 2003, becoming one of the first foreign dancers to attain professional status in the art.

In 2003, she began private tuition with Om Yuvanna, a veteran dance teacher who had been a member of the Royal Ballet in the early ’seventies, and in 2006 she brought Yuvanna to Japan to perform. By great coincidence, I had taken photos of Yuvanna in Phnom Penh in 1973, and was at this time living in Japan. I was astonished to see an old photo I had taken, on the flyer for her Tokyo performance**.

By this time, Hitomi had established her own dance troupe, Sakarak, with whom she has since staged various performances in Japan with the collaboration of Yuvanna.

The performance of “Bopha Suo Chomrieng Lorkei” (Heavenly Flower, Earth Poem) which will take place at RUFA on August 16 has been one and a half years in preparation, and involves nine Japanese dancers (including Hitomi) and at least six Cambodians, with their teacher, Sam Satiya. Hitomi wanted to create a unique work from both Khmer and Japanese traditions. Thematically, it is mainly Japanese, incorporating both 1000-year-old poetry and some more contemporary works “to add colour”; they express the feeling of ‘mono no aware’, the transience of all things and the gentle sadness at their passing.

There will be a “Sompea Kru” ceremony for the dance masters and their ancestors, followed by the classical dance “Moni Mekhala” as an example of pure form, and finally Hitomi’s creative dance performance of “AHNON” (‘eternally’) based on Khmer dance and choreographed mainly by Yuvanna, to music composed by Yaan Borin. The poetry and the dance both represent a thousand years of tradition and history, and it is this feeling of the flow of time which Hitomi wants to express.

Photo: Colin Grafton

Hitomi’s next project will be a Cambodian dance collaboration with Japanese traditional instruments, staged concurrently with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

** For full story, see website:

For further information on “Bopha Suo Chomrieng Lorkei”, please contact Hitomi Yamanaka at e-mail: [email protected]


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