French dancer and anthropologist Lucie Labbe may not have Khmer blood in her veins, but her heart beats for the Kingdom. After she first witnessed Cambodian classical dance in 2000, she devoted her life and time to study the country’s art of dancing. She tells her story to Say Tola.
GoodTimes2: When did you realise that you had a strong passion for Cambodian classical dance?
Lucie Labbe: I found myself having strong interest in Khmer dance in 2000, after joining an event which allowed many countries around the world to show their culture and arts. I didn’t have a particular reason why I liked it back then. I just knew that I wanted to learn more about it. After that, I joined a Khmer dance class near my hometown in Brittany.
I used to be really shy, like I never dared to travel outside France before. But I met a researcher who had been with the Cambodian and Vietnamese diaspora. I realised that I wanted to be like her. She advised me to go to Paris and get a degree in anthropology. She even warned me that the course wouldn’t be easy and that it would be hard for me to get a job with that degree. But my passion was so strong. I left my hometown and went to Paris to pursue it.
That was how I came to know more about Cambodia. Back in the beginning of 2000, I didn’t really know much about it, except that it is in Asia. I first visited the country in 2006. I lived with a host family and experienced the Cambodian lifestyle. It was actually the first country I ever travelled to outside Europe. Surprisingly, I didn’t find the language difference as a huge setback. But adapting to Khmer food was the real challenge.
GoodTimes2: Among the many dance performances you’ve seen, why did you focus on Khmer dance?
Lucie Labbe: Back then, I thought that Cambodian classical dance was really fascinating and seemed to be like a kind of dance that commands respect. That’s what I felt. Dancers moved their hands in interesting and graceful ways. Looking at the dancers made me realise that there’s a deeper meaning to the movements. Also, I saw that there were many kinds of characters in one single dance performance. So I wanted to discover more.
GoodTimes2: How did you gain more knowledge about Cambodia and its classical dance?
Lucie Labbe: In 2008, I came to visit here again for two months, aiming to do some research in preparation for an exam for my master’s degree. Language wasn’t anymore an issue that time because I had started to learn the Khmer language in 2007. I met Prince Tesso Sisowath who introduced me to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. I witnessed the dance class of Princess Norodom Bopha Dhevi. I also did research on dance with the Krousar Thmey Foundation in Siem Reap.
For my research, I consulted some existing documents, photos, videos and sound recordings of the classical dances. But to understand the connection between the dance and the dancers, I personally observed the classes and performances. I also interviewed master dancers and other dancers in the troupe.
After all the research and studies, I came to realise that there is no actual written knowledge on dances. There are some books that can provide us basic answers to basic questions. But the real knowledge needs to be obtained from the dance instructors. They are the ones who give students the instructions they need to learn to be good dancers because you as you know, dancing is a complex thing. Students need to focus and be serious if they want to learn the craft.
After I obtained my master’s degree in France, I continued with my PhD on Khmer dance. My professor believed that I could do it. So I came back to Cambodia to learn more about the Khmer language and dance. I worked as an English teacher and a librarian in Kandal province for a year before starting my PhD.
GoodTimes2: What projects are you currently working on in the country?
Lucie Labbe: I started a new project on Khmer classical dance in 2017. I am studying about the history of Khmer classical dance from the time when Cambodia was a French protectorate, and how it has evolved since then, to the present period.
I read some documents from the National Archives and found out that Cambodia hosted dance performances to greet the French and other foreign guests, when the country was a protectorate before independence. Before the French came to govern Cambodian, classical dancers were only allowed to perform inside the Royal Palace and temples. They danced for the gods and deities to bring rain, and they performed for the health of the king and the whole Kingdom.
But in 1906, Khmer dancers performed in a foreign country for the first time. They joined the Colonial Exhibition in Marseille. The French people were really fascinated with the Royal Ballet of Cambodia at that time. That was how Cambodian classical dancers started to get much attention from non-Khmers.
I also found out that the Khmer classical dance has vastly evolved. Princess Sisowath Kossamak created new choreographies with a fresh aesthetic appeal, in part for the purpose of pleasing foreign audiences. Before, dancers had to cover their faces with white make-up and they were not allowed to smile.
I also discovered that the classical dance was divided into three parts by Princess Norodom Bopha Dhevi in 2006 as a presentation for King Father Sihanouk’s birthday. The classifications were based on the dance styles set by the Kingdom’s princesses. During Sisowath Kossamak’s time, all dancers covered their faces with white make-up. The second dance classification was based on Princess Kossamak Nearyrath. During her time, the dancers were already allowed not to wear white make-up. Their dance costumes also changed. The third kind of dance is what present-day Cambodian dancers follow – a shortened version of the original classical dance.
GoodTimes2: What do you think about the new generation Cambodian dancers?
Lucie Labbe: I did observe that professional dancers needed to devote themselves to years of practice and training. But here’s the problem – even if you train hard, you might not be able to earn a good income to support yourself and your family. With this, I can see that many young Cambodians might not show an interest in dancing because they have to earn a living. But I think and I hope that they will still love classical dance because it is a very fascinating and beautiful art. I hope they can continue the legacy of the past dance masters.
I am trying my best, too, to encourage the youth who love the art of dancing. I am not teaching anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts. I want to keep teaching and researching more about Khmer dance and arts and culture in general.
I want people to understand that dancing is not merely for entertainment. It sometimes also deals with politics and other essential aspects of human life. But for me, the art of dancing is important to all countries because it can be a form of communication, a connection that can unite people.