By Daniel Otis
No longer reserved for royalty, the delights of Cambodia’s ethereal Apsara dancers can now be savoured by one and all
Dressed in elaborately brocaded costumes and anklets, bracelets and crowns made of shimmering gold, the dancers move with hypnotic grace, delicatelypivoting their hands, limbs and bare feet to tell the story of an exiled prince who has reclaimed his throne. Masked monsters join the stage in a whirl of woodwinds, voices, cymbals and drums. Elegant yet restrained, the performers’ every gesture is steeped with meaning in an art form as old as Cambodia itself.
Visitors to the Kingdom will see thousands of heavenly dancers carved into the walls of Angkor’s temples. Called Apsara, these spirits of cloud and water represent the pinnacle of feminine beauty. Living and dancing within these ancient Hindu temples, the Apsaras’ mortal counterparts practiced an art similar to the classical dances of Thailand, India and Indonesia in order to summon and please the gods.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 14th Century, dancers moved from temples to the palace. They maintained their sacred roles while also entertaining royals and becoming part of the court harem. European audiences were even given a taste of this exotic ballet when King Sisowath brought his dancers to Paris during a 1906 visit.
What is now known as the Royal Ballet of Cambodia became a public art in the middle of the 20th Century when the late King Norodom Sihanouk disbanded the court harem. Sihanouk’s mother became the ballet’s chief patron and they toured the country performing interpretations of Indian epics such as the Ramayana. Men also began playing the roles of beasts in an art traditionally monopolised by women, and while the dancers still performed in ceremonies, Sihanouk would also include them in several of his films. An early star in this field was his eldest daughter, Princess Buppha Devi, who debuted in the Royal Ballet in 1951 at the age of eight. The princess would go on to become the troupe’s prima ballerina.
The Royal Ballet mesmerised audiences and visiting dignitaries until the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Along with other artists and intellectuals, many of the ballet’s dancers, choreographers and musicians were purged by the genocidal regime. The princess, who managed to escape with her family, soon returned to refugee camps along the Thai border to search for surviving dancers and teach children this ancient art.
“They wanted to save their identity,” Prince Sisowath Tesso says of the survivors. A great-great grandson of King Sisowath, Tesso is Buppha Devi’s cousin, assistant and private secretary. A dancer since the age of ten, the prince
also serves as an advisor on cultural affairs to Cambodia’s reigning monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni. The King himself is a classically trained dancer, who both taught and choreographed traditional Cambodian ballet in France for nearly two decades before ascending his country’s throne in 2004.
“The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is a fragile art,” says Tesso. “If we don’t take serious care of it, it will disappear.” Recognising this, Unesco added the ballet to its list of intangible cultural heritage in 2003. Princess Devi has led the revived Royal Ballet of Cambodia since the 1980s. In addition to teaching and choreographing, the princess (who is also King Sihamoni’s half-sister) has created new dances for the troupe, which frequently performs in Europe, the US and Asia (their Facebook page lists tour dates), as well as twice a year in the splendid Moonlight Pavilion at Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace for the King’s May 14 birthday and the October 29 anniversary of his coronation. If you miss Cambodia’s official dance troupe while visiting the Kingdom, there are still many opportunities to see the art form while you’re here. Park Hyatt Siem Reap’s show takes place on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 7pm in its elegant courtyard, where the mood is relaxed and the performance can be taken in alongside dinner and drinks. An excellent troupe of dancers also performs at Phnom Penh’s National Museum on Friday and Saturday evenings. Visit cambodianlivingarts.org for more details. If you’re looking to fill a rainy day in Phnom Penh, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre (bophana.org) possesses several sublime black and white films of court dancers, some of which are more than a century old. The films, which are free to view, are perhaps the best way to see this graceful art in its intended sacred form.