AMAZ­ING GRACE

Discover Cambodia - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy by Sam Jam Words by Dene Mullen

Un­cov­er­ing the peer­less Sa­cred Dancers of Angkor

THE AN­CIENT CAM­BO­DIAN ART OF AP­SARA DANC­ING IS A POP­U­LAR ATTRACTION AT NU­MER­OUS HO­TELS AND RESTAU­RANTS. HOW­EVER, SOME OF THE COUN­TRY'S FINEST PRAC­TI­TION­ERS ARE TO BE FOUND IN A SMALL VIL­LAGE IN RU­RAL SIEM REAP

Dancers hold pun­ish­ing poses with arms, legs and dig­its twisted and curved at fan­tas­ti­cal an­gles

The stu­dents exude an air of seren­ity, of dis­ci­pline – even those watch­ing from the side­lines do so in­tently

ON a large, wooden stage with a thatched roof, a group of young men and women are kneel­ing down, of­fer­ing smiles and bowed heads. One by one they are sum­moned to the front of the class, where they re­ceive or­nate crowns and fearsome mon­key masks from their teacher.

Dis­cover has been granted a pri­vate au­di­ence with the Sa­cred Dancers of Angkor, one of Cam­bo­dia’s most revered troupes of ap­sara dancers. Ap­sara is the coun­try’s clas­si­cal dance style that dates back more than 1,000 years to the Angko­rian era, dur­ing which time the per­form­ers were seen as ful­fill­ing the sa­cred func­tion of com­mu­ni­cat­ing be­tween gods and mor­tals. And here in Ch­houk Sar vil­lage, a 45-minute drive from down­town Siem Reap, un­furls an ethe­real spec­ta­cle of beauty, pre­ci­sion and con­trol.

Founded in 2007 as an off­shoot of the Nginn Karet Foun­da­tion for Cam­bo­dia, a sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment NGO that helps un­der­priv­i­leged fam­i­lies, the Sa­cred Dancers of Angkor is the brain­child and pas­sion project of Ravynn Karet-Coxen. Her young charges are ex­clu­sively chil­dren from the area sur­round­ing Ch­houk Sar, all of whom train for four hours per day in ad­di­tion to at­tend­ing reg­u­lar school. Most have been study­ing the King­dom’s heav­enly art here for seven, eight or nine years – and it shows.

The stu­dents exude an air of seren­ity, of dis­ci­pline – even those watch­ing from the side­lines do so in­tently, tak­ing in their teacher’s in­struc­tions and oc­ca­sion­ally prac­tis­ing their hand move­ments. Lines of dancers hold pun­ish­ing poses with arms, legs and dig­its twisted and curved at fan­tas­ti­cal an­gles, not a coiled toe out of place, for three to four min­utes at a time, with­out ever ex­hibit­ing signs of strain or the mer­est trem­ble. A girl dressed as the di­vine archer, a char­ac­ter in the epic Reamker poem, stands on a small podium, where Ms Chan­tha, the school’s clas­si­cal dance teacher, calls out in­struc­tions and phys­i­cally re­ar­ranges her mil­lime­tres at a time un­til the pose is deemed flaw­less.

Shortly after­wards, some of the girls take up Cam­bo­dian in­stru­ments and per­form beau­ti­ful mo­hori mu­sic, a tra­di­tional form usu­ally played at pago­das. They also dis­play prodi­gious tal­ent with a paint­brush, cre­at­ing soft water­colour recre­ations of mu­rals found at Siem Reap’s famed tem­ples. The paint­ings will be sold for $25 each at the troupe’s shows, with $20 go­ing to the dancer who painted it and $5 re­tained by the or­gan­i­sa­tion for ma­te­ri­als.

After a cou­ple of hours of mus­cle­strain­ing perfection, four of the Sa­cred Dancers stage a fi­nal per­for­mance, one that bids good­bye and good luck to th­ese for­tu­nate be­ings who spent an af­ter­noon in the com­pany of the gods.

Most of the dancers have been study­ing the heav­enly art for seven, eight or nine years

A gift: re­ceiv­ing a crown is an im­por­tant, and rev­er­en­tial, part of the Sa­cred Dancers' rit­ual

On the line: dancers must at­tend classes for at least four hours a day if they are to mas­ter the pre­cise tech­niques of ap­sara

Push­ing it: dancers bend their fingers dur­ing train­ing. Very dex­trous fingers are nec­es­sary for ap­sara danc­ing

Bell boy: mu­si­cians play the kong toch in­stru­ment to ac­com­pany the dancers

In style: dancers strike some of the most fa­mous ap­sara poses

Maker's mark: all of the Sa­cred Dancers' head­wear and cos­tumes are hand­made by the dancers

Magic fingers: a dancer with the Sa­cred Dancers of Angkor, based in a small vil­lage out­side

Siem Reap, prac­tises her hand move­ments – an in­te­gral part of Cam­bo­dia's ap­sara danc­ing

With re­spect: a dancer re­ceives her mask from Ms Sokham, the school's folk dance teacher

Fo­cus: dancers pre­pare to per­form, all wear­ing hand­made cos­tumes

Clas­si­cal: dancers per­form while dressed as Neang Seda (left) and Hanu­man, char­ac­ters from the Reamker, a Cam­bo­dian epic poem

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