In Cambodia’s temples, you’ll see statues of Apsaras: women wearing traditional attire and an elaborate headdress in an elegant dance pose, their hands flexed backwards in various hand gestures. These spirits of Hindu and Buddhist mythology figure prominently in Cambodian royal ballet, an art form that was nearly lost under the Khmer Rouge regime (1974-1979) – and one that the country has fought to bring back.
Like with Western ballet, the dances performed by the Cambodian Royal Ballet company tell stories through stylised movements and gestures. One difference is that while Western ballet focuses on elevation, Cambodian dancers stand firmly on the floor. They also wear large crowns and ornate costumes. But in both traditions you’ll find a show of strength and grace.
Royal ballet was once only performed for the gods – so it was usually staged in temples. Because kings were considered a sort of reincarnation of gods, the dances were performed in the royal court. Even after the country’s religion changed from Brahmanism to Buddhism, which made the king a representative of his people rather than a godlike figure, the dances were maintained.
The Khmer Rouge regime devastated the arts. Royal ballet survived thanks to a few people who hid their knowledge of the dances and stayed safe. In refugee camps at the Thai border, dance schools were created even while there was not enough to eat. Cambodians wanted to maintain their identity through the arts.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, royal ballet slowly re-emerged, although sadly it’s no longer revered as a gift of perfection to the gods. It is listed as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, but it is still a vulnerable art. Teachers are getting old. And dance is not an attractive career for young Cambodians, who can find higher earnings in factories, for instance.
Performing abroad gives dancers more income and the pride of being in front of an international audience. In 1970 the Cambodian Royal Ballet took a picture in Times Square on a trip to New York. In 2013 the group did the same. It’s a bittersweet image, knowing what’s been lost, but also what’s been reborn.
Prince Sisowath Tesso is the private assistant to HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. The Royal Ballet of Cambodia performs in Hong Kong on 25, 26 and 27 August; hkculturalcentre.gov.hk. The group also performs in Phnom Penh 15-17 December; last2ticket.asia