The Royal Ballet of Cambodia
In Cambodia,bd ddance is the cultural lifeblood
When the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performs at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, audiences will see sylphs in sumptuous costumes curl and angle their limbs to create gorgeous legato tendrils of gesture. Majestic and ethereal, Cambodia’s famous “ballet” has highlighted the country’s royal events for centuries, even performing rituals to connect mortals with the divine.
But the greatest marvel about this dance is that it exists at all. Thirty-five years ago, it was all but gone — deliberately and brutally annihilated.
In 1975, as the crowning catastrophe of the Indochina wars, the Communist Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) seized power. Led by fanatics determined to restart their culture from “Year Zero,” the regime systematically eliminated doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, teachers, musicians, and dancers. When Vietnamese armies liberated and occupied Cambodia in early 1979, the situation was dire. At least a fifth of the population was dead. The majority of women were widows. Farming had been trashed, along with virtually all other economic and social institutions. Moreover, Western countries and the United Nations shunned the Vietnamese-imposed government, recognizing instead a regime in exile (which included the Khmer Rouge). Offered little outside assistance, the devastated country was basically abandoned.
For dance, the situation was desperate. Nine-tenths of the performers, teachers, and advanced students were gone. Most were dead. Some who had left before 1975 were living abroad, mainly in France, and understandably loath to return to the foreigner-occupied shambles of their country. The 10 percent still alive in Cambodia were scattered all over, scrambling to find shelter and food, struggling to deal with the trauma they had endured. Restoring the ages-old institution of dance seemed impossible.
Yet now, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Royal Ballet is gloriously alive once more. Why is this
Eat, pray, undulate art so important to Cambodians that restoring it after the Khmer Rouge seemed as urgent to some people as producing food?
The answer lies in a thousand years of Khmer history, during which dance has figured prominently in both ritual and identity. Cambodia’s creation myth credits an apsara (a beautiful celestial dancer) named Mera, as the original mother. During the great Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the early-15th centuries, dancers belonged to the sacred king and temples. Tens of thousands of bas-relief apsaras festoon the colossal temples at Angkor, in the ancient empire’s capital. Bare-breasted and adorned with crowns, jewels, and diaphanous scarves, these sandstone dancers flex their legs and curl their hands into shapes much like those still seen in contemporary Cambodian ballet.
In the 15th century, Thai invaders sacked Angkor and seized much of the royal wealth, including the sacred dancers. Apsaras became an ornament of Thai royalty, with nothing known about the dance in Cambodia for several hundred years. Records resume in the mid-19th century, when the Cambodian king Ang Duong, who was raised in Thailand, apparently re-imported the dance, mixing it with the local forms that had remained and evolved. Ang Duong stocked his harem with some 300 potential dancers and personally took charge of the royal dance. He reportedly softened and slowed the movements, adapted poses from the Angkorean bas-reliefs, and created the costume designs still used today.
From the time of Ang Duong until Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk was deposed, with the U.S.’s blessing, in 1970, the “ballet” remained a key symbol of Khmer royalty and identity. Despite several attempts by French culture ministers (during their colonial rule of “Indochina”) to commandeer the dance, the royal troupe remained a crown jewel. Even after the 1970 coup, the troupe continued, minus some key sponsors, as the “ex-Royal Ballet.”
A far cry from Western ballet, Cambodian classical dance creates its honeyed flow of movements with a body architecture closer to that of India — angled knees and elbows, flexed ankles and toes, and hands that can curve into lotus petals or flower stems. The serene feel of the art belies its ferocious technical demands. Dancers must hyperextend their elbows so their arms can undulate in complete S waves. They must bend a knee and ankle up behind them so acutely that an elbow can rest on the sole of a foot. During royal times, dancers performed on major occasions — including the king’s birthday, cremations, and receptions for important visitors. Cambodians even ascribed otherworldly potency to some dances. For example, Moni Mekhala, which enacts the recurring battle between a water goddess and a storm demon, not only has breathtaking choreography but invokes the rain to come and nourish Cambodia’s rice fields.
Traditionally, Royal Ballet performers were all women. Teachers sorted new trainees (often as young
as four or five) into one of four groups. Roun ndfaced, petite girls learned neang (female) roles, shaping the most refined gestures to play princesses, goddesses, and the like. Taller girls played neayrong (male) roles, us ing a slightly wider stance and making broader move-m ments. The largest girls and the less pretty ones played masked yeak (giant) characters, typ pically rampaging mischief-makers. The sva (monkey y) role, also once played by girls, was switched to boy dancers in the mid-20th century, spicing the trad ditional movement with tumbling and comedy.
Royal Ballet costumes, which are sewn o onto each dancer for every performance, are still base ed on the ones Ang Duong designed in the 19th centu ury. Taken from royal coronation vestments, they feature e brocades shot with golden threads and velvets span gled with thousands of sequins and beads, making th he dancers glitter as they move. A gilt crown with a high h, pointed spire tops most costumes.
In 1979, this image of royal splendor stood d in painful contrast to the dancers’ situation. After th he Khmer Rouge’s defeat, a few performers who gathered in Phnom Penh pooled their information. For exampl le, one of them knew that the celebrated nearong Sam Sa akhan and her doctor husband had heeded an early Khm mer Rouge call for physicians to come to Phnom Penh. It w was a trap. Her photo turned up inside the Tuol Sleng to orture and extermination center. Someone else reportedd seeing a famous artist beaten bloody and dumped in a river. The awful stories accumulated.
Still, the artists tried to locate other survivo rs and see what they could put together from the splint ters of the dance that remained. Leading the effort was Chh heng Phon. Before the war, he had been a popular clown a ctor, afterward studying all the roles of the classical dance e. He is the only person, male or female, to have done this. B Besides his knowledge of the dance, Chheng Phon had th he political
savvy to deal with Vietnamese officials. He quickly got rid of a Vietnamese “advisor” who wanted the performers to wear shoes and use piano music instead of traditional instruments. He obtained the authorities’ full blessing for Cambodian-controlled restoration of the arts. And soon he became the Minister of Culture.
In terms of materials, the dancers had next to nothing: a couple of torn and filthy costumes and a few damaged instruments. Until a French railway union donated bolts of blue cotton cloth, they didn’t even have fabric to make practice sarongs.
But what they most gravely lacked were kru — teachers. Fortunately, one of the very best female-role teachers, Chea Samy, had survived and was passionate, frail as she was, to get to work. But, as Chheng Phon said privately, no real masters were left alive to carry on the neayrong and yeak roles — “only fourth- or fifth-rank” artists. After a short time, Proeung Chhieng, an accomplished monkey dancer, set about restoring that role (and eventually became the head of choreographic arts at the school).
The kru selected students, mainly “orphans” — that is, children who had lost at least one parent. Because transportation was nonexistent and food in short supply, they decided to have all the students live at the school, in a not-too-badly damaged building near the palace. Teachers moved into the miserable wreck of an apartment building fairly close by — with no running water, only as much electricity as they could somehow tap from the poles, and just the furniture they could scavenge from streets or empty houses.
Despite the rudimentary facilities, the School of Fine Arts opened in 1980, with dance practice in the cool of the morning and “general studies” in the afternoon. A new generation of dancers began to master the basic movements (the so-called Chha Banchos) and then, one by one, some of the old dances. Seamstresses began to replicate the ancient costumes. Before long, the dance study moved to a sort of campus in the north of the city, on the dusty bare ground of a former fuel depot. Gradually, with some help from UNICEF, a few rough buildings and sheds went up — a practice hall, a theater, a long row of offices and classrooms. Some performances took place in the old dance pavilions of the royal palace.
Because of Cambodia’s political isolation, almost nobody outside the country had a clue what was going on — that the dance was coming back to life. In fact, the most frequent accusation by opponents of the occupation government — more frequent than charges about political repression, corruption, and so forth — alleged that the sacred royal dance was being “Vietnamized.” Dance remained the prime symbol of the Cambodian soul.
In 1990, a “Peace Plan” paved the way for opening Cambodia up to the world — and for its royalty to return home. Princess Buppha Devi, the finest dancer of her generation, came back from France to dance, advise, and, finally, oversee the dance — a big psychological and practical boon. With royal sponsorship (and advanced training), the school became a part of the Royal University of Fine Arts.
But relative peace, selective prosperity, and rampant corruption brought a string of new challenges. With United Nations peacekeepers came a surge in prostitution. The neighborhood near the school grew so clogged at night that evening performances became impossible. (Fortunately, dancers could still use the two pavilions in the royal palace.) Many teachers, unable to live on their $12-per-month government salaries, moonlighted at menial jobs, which siphoned their attention and energy from their students. When the pathetic quarters where they had lived for more than a decade suddenly became valuable real estate, the artists were evicted and relocated, mostly to questionable areas far from Phnom Penh’s center. Finally, the older generation of teachers started to pass away, including Chea Samy. In addition, several more premier dancers left, including some who married American or French citizens and moved away.
Then, a few years ago, in what could have been a coup de grâce, the dance school was sold out from under the artists to be razed for a new shopping center. The dancers had to set up a new school from scratch in a muddy, hardto-reach area several miles from Phnom Penh, on roads that are challenging in the dry season and often flooded during the rains.
Somehow, despite all the difficulties, the school still functions, training new would- be apsaras. And the repertory keeps enlarging. In recent years, beyond just reconstructing what existed before the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian classical dance has again become dynamic. Maverick choreographers such as Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, Emmanuéle Phuon, and Chankethya Chey are expanding the old forms and developing new hybrids. Princess Buppha Devi has been creating new dances within the tradition. Several of her new works are on the Lensic’s program, offering Santa Fe audiences the chance to enjoy the fruits of this latest chapter in the rebirth of Cambodian dance.
The New Mexican’s Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture
October 24, 2014
Top and bottom, dancers from the Royal Ballet; images courtesy the Cambodian Royal Ballet
Chhea Samy adjusts a dancer’s headdress; top, a neayrong (male role) daancer in the royal palace, 1988 (the dancer in profile defected in Minneapolis in 1990)