The Royal Bal­let of Cam­bo­dia

In Cam­bo­dia,bd ddance is the cul­tural lifeblood

Pasatiempo - - Front Page - Eileen Blu­men­thal I For The New Mex­i­can

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)

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