Leng Vany, left, makes up the face of a member of the ballet corps
t has taken years of hard work by performers and teachers to rebuild the Royal
Ballet of Cambodia following it's destruction by the Khmer Rouge regime. Anette Marcher
and Peter Sainsbury report on the Ballet's progress and its growing international
reputation, as can be seen from the already sold-out performances for its coming
64-day European tour.
MAGIC quivers beneath the threadbare ceiling panels of the Chak-tomuk Theater. Invisible
demigods from 1,000 years of mythology sneak along the plastic-covered rows of seats,
whispering sacred legends in the ears of mortal spectators. On stage, seven apsaras
- heavenly nymphs - float in a hypnotic dance.
Gold-embroidered silk dresses rustle and thick gilded rings jingle around the dancers'
wrists and ankles as they drift in and out between each other, like goldfish in a
slow-motion pond. Slowly and silently, nimble feet trip across the stage, and the
soft, graceful movements make the bodies of the nymphs appear as if they consisted
only of water and flimsy matter - without joints or bones.
But the apsara dancers are made of flesh and blood - members of Cambodia's Royal
Ballet, performing on an ordinary Saturday night in the capital, Phnom Penh. The
audience is enchanted, and the scruffy surroundings of the Chaktomuk Theater drown
in the semi-divine dance and all its mystery.
In October a new audience will be enjoying Cambodian traditional dance: French promoter
Didier Vuillecot has booked the ballet for a 64-day, 32-performance tour of France,
Italy, Switzerland and Belgium. The Chaktomuk Theater will give way to the Palace
of Versailles; the dancers will travel across Europe from Paris to Florence, performing
a seven-item program.
A key sign of the Royal Ballet's progress and reputation is that the tour's $500,000
costs are being fully funded from ticket sales. Vuillecot said no grants from NGOs
have been sought or given; it will be a completely professional tour. However he
acknowledged the French embassy for their assistance in arranging meetings and assisting
"I asked no one for support. I would like to show the Cambodian people it is
not necessary to get a grant. These things are self-supporting," he said.
The tour appears to be eagerly anticipated: Vuillecot said he has heard the two performances
in Lyons have already sold out.
Vuillecot is excited about the project. He has worked with Cambodian musicians before
and arranged short tours to France and Spain for small groups, but this is on a much
Vuillecot is clear the tour is a business but he said he also wants to make a contribution
to the Ballet's future in addition to the more than $50,000 performance fee paid
to the Ministry of Culture.
Ros Siphal, a teacher at the Royal Ballet, in Ramayana costume at Angkor Wat
He said there were intangible benefits from such a project which he summed up as
"politics divides but art unites."
Meanwhile the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is keenly aware of the wider benefits
of the tour. Hang Soth, director of the Ministry's culture department, said he hoped
that the tour could lead to a deeper appreciation of Cambodian culture and an increase
"They [the audience] learn of the Khmer culture through the performance,"
he said. "Secondly, when they see the dancers they will ask: 'Who are they?'
and they will be told 'They are apsara from Angkor Wat' and that is very famous and
they will want to visit and to learn more."
The one problem the tour has had has been the replacement of star dancer Piseth Pelika,
who was shot and later died in early July. Her replacement is Kim Bun Thom, a dancer
who was described as slightly older and shorter than Pelika but of equal or greater
talent as a traditional dancer.
A few years ago, even local performances of the Royal Ballet would have been almost
unimaginable, let alone a full-scale tour. Like a threatened species, Cambodia's
cultural heritage and traditional performing arts were close to being extinct after
state-approved mass killings and decades of internal chaos.
Only massive efforts have brought Cambodian culture back to life, reviving and rebuilding
folk dance and classical ballet, village and shadow play, music and traditional weaving,
tales and legends.
Cambodia's cultural decline started in 1975. The Khmer Rouge considered dancers,
actors and musicians unwanted left-overs from a decadent past, and branded as "anti-revolutionaries"
everybody with a connection to culture and arts. They were either marched off to
forced labor in the rice fields or simply exterminated.
Pol Pot managed to inflict more devastation upon Cambodia's cultural heritage than
Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao in China.
In 1979, when the Vietnamese overthrew the KR, traditional Cambodian performing arts
were on the brink of extinction. During the next 20 years continuing civil war and
isolation nearly finished the job off.
Not until the early 1990s did a small group of enthusiasts in the Ministry of Culture
and private organizations start to systematically collect Cambodia's cultural fragments
out of the ashes.
And today, traditional performing arts are gradually beginning to bloom again all
over the country.
"We have now reached the point where Cambodia no longer is losing more of its
cultural heritage," says Delphine Kassem, who five years ago founded the association
Sovanna Phum or Magic Circus, whose purpose is to give Cambodian artists better opportunities
"Now, we finally know all traditional arts and the crafts that are connected
with every genre. Instead, the efforts must now concentrate on maintaining and spreading
the knowledge of the arts and passing them on to new generations." .
It has taken many hours of courageous and meticulous work to reach this stage. Artistic
skills and crafting traditions were previously passed on by "old masters"
training new generations, and the few existing documents and records had often been
destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era.
The cultural rescue operation has therefore mainly consisted of locating and seeking
out former dancers, musicians, mask-makers and puppeteers, tap them for their knowledge
and put them to work, training new pupils.
The Ministry of Culture and the UN's cultural organization, UNESCO, sent out appeals
through national and local radio stations. But even so, the task of tracking down
the old masters was difficult and demanding in a country that until recently was
torn by war, chaos and fighting factions.
Hang Soth remembers how in 1996 he traveled to Kampong Speu province to look for
"The area was controlled by the Khmer Rouge, so we couldn't just drive around
by ourselves, but had to ask for help from the regional commander. A few days later,
they had found 70 people with knowledge of traditional dancing," explains Hang
The cultural researchers also faced another problem: time. Many old masters were
60 or 70 years old and there was a risk they would die before they had passed on
their skills to a new generation.
Their knowledge therefore had to be written down as quickly as possible. Today, a
team of notaries has recorded 4,000 different dancing positions and movements on
paper and videotape.
But in spite of all the efforts, Cambodia's cultural heritage is still hanging by
a thread. According to Hang Soth, there is only one living old master who is familiar
with every detail in classical dancing: The 67-year old Em Tiay who works as an instructor
with the Royal Ballet.
And beneath the thatched roof of Magic Circus's hall, puppeteer Mann Kosal carries
a large responsibility. The last old master of shadow died a few months ago, and
48-year-old Mann Kosal is now one of only five or six people who can cut leather
into genuine, traditional shadow puppets - and at the same time know all the old
legends that the figures dance to.
Furthermore, there is still not a lot of money to be found - either in the government's
budget or in foreign donors' pockets - for the revitalization of the culture.
"Financing is always a problem. If you plan a project about children or agriculture
or AIDS, there's plenty of money, but not if it's about music and dancing,"says
"And I don't understand it. In a country so torn and broken as Cambodia - where
nobody is starving - the most important thing must be to create a common feeling
that this is my country and my culture that I can be proud of."
Very low incomes often force dancers, actors and musicians to leave the performing
arts in favor of better paid jobs as waiters, cleaners or taxi drivers.
When Magic Circus arranges performances, Delphine Kassem mainly invites artists who
either have or are on the verge of giving up their profession, thus giving them a
chance to keep in contact with the art scene.
The murdered Piseth Pelika, left, has been replaced by Kim Bun Thom
Even the National Theater near the Russian Embassy is a sad symbol of the large amount
of work still ahead before Cambodia's cultural heritage will be properly secured
for future generations.
The theater burned down in 1994 and has not been rebuilt. For five merciless years,
the grand auditorium has dozed as a jumble of weeds, garbage, rubble, broken tiles,
rusty metal plates and charred wood. The orchestra pit gapes like an empty crater
and only the foundations of a concrete staircase is a testimony of the times when
1,200 spectators filled plush seats.
Nevertheless, the Royal Company still has its headquarters in the blackened ruin.
And below the sparrows who build their nests in the lofty foyer, dancers practice
complicated steps while seamstresses repair their sparkling costumes.
In his office, also used as storage for masks and headgear, Hang Soth explains that
every year since the fire he has asked the government for those five or six million
dollars that is required to rebuild the theater. He has yet to receive an answer.
"But if we really want to make peace in this country, we have to pay. We must
raise the morals, and that we can only do through the culture that all Cambodians
have in common. Otherwise, we risk losing our national identity," says Hang
In spite of all the obstacles, he, the Magic Circus and hundreds of other enthusiasts
continue the struggle to save and revitalize traditional Cambodian arts and culture.
In cooperation with UNESCO, the National Theater has succeeded in planning and financing
performances every Saturday and Sunday throughout 1999. So every weekend, Cambodians
flock to the smaller Chaktomuk Theater where the National Ensemble takes lodgings
when it performs.
And this July, the company gave its first performance of a brand new - yet 150 years
old - play of the Lakhaon Pol Srei genre, where all female actors wear masks.
Until a year ago, everybody considered this art form to be lost, but then researchers
found a 70-year old Lakhaon Pol Srei specialist in Kandal province. On July 2 a play
of that kind was shown in Cambodia for the first time in 40 years.