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
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
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
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
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
A gift: receiving a crown is an important, and reverential, part of the Sacred Dancers' ritual
Classical: dancers perform while dressed as Neang Seda (left) and Hanuman, characters from the Reamker, a Cambodian epic poem