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Memories in Motion: Cambodia’s royal ballet returns

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times Share:
‘Memories in Motion’ aims to showcase the evolution of Cambodia’s royal ballet. KT/Rama Ariadi

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is set to return to Phnom Penh in for its second season next month, after a highly successful series of sold-out shows last year.

“In response to the high demand, we have decided to stage three public performances on January 12 and 13 next year,” said the director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, Prince Sisowath Tesso, at a press conference held at Phnom Penh’s Hotel Le Royal yesterday.

“The performances will be open to the public, and three performances have been scheduled on January 12 and 13 next year.”

The theme chosen for this season, is ‘Memories in Motion’. It is a three-part performance, designed by Cambodia’s first prima ballerina, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, which aims to show the evolution of the elaborate court dance under three consecutive kings and regent, the first being the dances that were performed in King Sisowath’s court in the early 20th century. “King Sisowath was invited to France, and he brought his troupe of dancers with him, where they stayed for one month,” explained Prince Tesso.

Prince Tesso said that although the troupe performed in many cities, including down south in Marseille, their most memorable performance was held at Pré-Catalan Theatre in Paris’ Bois du Bologne.

“French sculpture artist Auguste Rodin, went to see the troupe perform at the theatre and was so enamoured by the performance that he produced a series of drawings, which gave the king’s troupe international fame and exposure,” he continued.

At that time, explained Prince Tesso, the court dances that were being performed were markedly different – the costumes were more elaborate and the troupe consisted of females only.

“It was a rule at that time that even the musicians for the royal court consisted of only females,” he explained.

“The second act aims to highlight the changes to the ballet under the reign of Queen Sisowath Kossamak, Princess Buppha Devi’s grandmother and regent to then-Prince Sihanouk,” continued Prince Tesso.

Prince Sisowath Tesso talks about the new ballet season. KT/Tuy Engly

During the reign of Queen Kossamak, the masters and craftsmen that were crucial to the preservation of the royal ballet were spread across the country.

“As a French protectorate, the royal household was subjected to a series of restructurisation, and many staffs of the royal household were removed from their position at the palace – including the dancers and musicians,” he explained.

According to him, the state of the royal ballet was in disarray – it was immediately obvious just by looking at the costumes that the art form was in decline.

“Queen Kossamak initiated the move to bring back the masters of the craft back to the palace to help her revive the royal ballet,” said Prince Tesso.

It was during this second period that a touch of modernity was added to an otherwise ancient art form. Queen Kossamak commissioned simpler costumes and the heavy use of make-up ceased to be used by the performers. Furthermore, the queen also pushed for greater inclusion of males in the female-dominated royal ballet troupe.

“[Queen Kossamak] sought male performers that were well-versed in performing the tales of Raemker (Khmer for the Hindu myth of Ramayana) to teach younger performers at the palace,” he said.

As a result of the changes exacted by the queen, male performers are now not limited by any constraints. They are free to portray any of the four characters in the royal ballet’s classical repertory, may it be Neang (the woman), Neayrong (the man), Yeak (the giant), or and Sva (the monkey).

“Consequently, the choreography also had to be adapted, which the audience will be able to see in the second performance that we have scheduled,” continued Prince Tesso.

“This brings us to the contemporary period which, generally speaking, began under the reign of King Sihanouk.”

According to Prince Tesso, it was under the reign of King Sihanouk that the Royal Ballet of Cambodia gained international recognition, as the troupe followed him around as he conducted his jet-fuelled diplomacy across the globe.

The announcement was attended by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi and representatives from Unesco and Eurocham. KT/Rama Ariadi

Furthermore, King Sihanouk introduced one particular reform that allowed the ballet to flourish – performers were given monthly salaries that allowed them to contribute to their own households.

“The [Cambodian] royal ballet had always been highly institutionalised by the royal family, so it had that highbrow sense about it, but through the reforms made under King Sihanouk this lettres des noblesse began to diminish,” said Prince Tesso.

“It became more accessible to the general public – not for the consumption of the privileged few,” he continued.

“It was also during this period that the Royal Ballet of Cambodia debuted Queen Kossamak’s more modern repertory – Robam Apsaras – which eventually became a part of the identity of our nation.

“People talk about apsara dances, even when the performance that they are seeing has no relationship at all to the mythical court dancers.”

Princess Buppha Devi – despite her status as the Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s first prima ballerina, and the supervising producer of the performances – then took to
the floor to express her gratitude for the support of Unesco and the public for aiding her efforts to protect and promote the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

“As an artist myself, who had survived the attempts to erase our intangible cultural heritage, I feel that it is my duty,” she said. “But this isn’t just for the sake of preservation – it is my way of honouring the legacy of our past masters of the craft, by working hard to ensure that the royal ballet can be enjoyed by future generations.”

“Through ‘Memories in Motion’, I wanted the audience to see how Cambodia’s royal ballet is living art – it evolves as time progresses,” said Princess Buppha Devi. “However, one must realise our dances have roots that are deeply ingrained in history, so despite the changes to the repertory or the more-modern style, all the basic hand gestures that are used to indicate emotions remain the same.

“As such, re-establishing the royal ballet’s standing and increasing our troupe’s mastery of the classical repertory is our focus,” concluded Princess Buppha Devi. “After all, how can we march forward if we don’t know the basics?”

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia returns for its second season at the Chaktomuk Hall on January 12-13, 2018. Tickets are available for purchase at Institut Français du Cambodge, Khéma Pasteur, Kwest, and Bophana Center, or online through Last2Ticket.

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