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Out of 176, only 80 of the troupes’ dancers are left – with the remainder ‘on and off’. TERENCE CARTER
Out of 176, only 80 of the troupes’ dancers are left – with the remainder ‘on and off’. TERENCE CARTER

End nigh for troupe of spiritual dancers

The founder of Siem Reap’s Sacred Dancers of Angkor has launched a fundraising campaign to keep the group afloat

Siem Reap’s Sacred Dancers of Angkor are in trouble. The troupe is touted as the only group of classical and folk dancers and musicians in Cambodia, with a spiritual dimension to their art reflecting the religious significance of the Angkor temples near where the artists were born and train.

But Ravynn Karet-Coxen, founder of the Nginn Karet Foundation and the Conservatoire Preah Ream Bopha Devi dance school in Banteay Srei, says that without additional income the dance group will fold and has launched an urgent fundraising appeal.

Karet-Coxen hopes to raise money from individual donors or entities, including high-end travel companies, to pay each young Cambodian dancer a salary of $80 per month.

Those who want to make a donation can find more information at the troupe’s website, nkfc.org.

On the eve of an enchanting performance by the Sacred Dancers this week at a candle-lit Wat Damnak pagoda, Karet-Coxen said that if funds aren’t raised to support the troupe, she’s concerned that “once lost, no one will revive it”.

With the disappearance of the dance troupe will go Karet-Coxen’s dream to create a sustainable future for the artists in which they’re performing for a fair income to an appreciative audience.

Karet-Coxen founded the Nginn Karet Foundation as a charitable institution in 1994, with the purpose of meeting basic needs for Banteay Srei villagers by developing clean water, hygiene, health care, vaccination, nutrition, malaria awareness, agricultural training, education and literacy programs.

Soon after she founded the dance school for the children of the families under the patronage of Princess Bopha Devi.

“We’ve trained the village children from nothing, teaching them to love their art first and excel,” Karet-Coxen said.

“We explained that this is the only way that money will come their way, but to love money first would make them struggle all their lives.”

Out of 176 dancers and musicians, Karet-Coxen said there are only 80 left, and their presence at the school is “on and off”.

One of the biggest threats to the troupe’s future, she said, are the agents who visit villages to lure people to work illegally in Thailand on construction sites.

“They are so destitute, and as adolescents they feel morally obliged to help their parents … so we’re confronted with a situation where the need for money is so high that they just, against their will and with heavy hearts, leave,” Karet-Coxen lamented.

“Some come back after a while, but with their morale completely broken.”

Karet-Coxen is busy planning events and activities to showcase the excellence of their productions and said the Sacred Dancers of Angkor were ready to offer “absolutely magnificent full-length performances” of the kind that have enchanted guests at temples in Cambodia and Laos, on stages in the US, and in Siem Reap this week.

“This is unique,” said Cambodian-American Kunthary de Gaiffier, who was at Wat Bo pagoda.

Soon after retiring from a 34-year career at the World Bank in Washington, De Gaiffier joined the foundation’s board as a trustee and is visiting Cambodia to assist with fundraising efforts.

The Sacred Dancers of Angkor are touted as the only dance troupe in Cambodia with a spiritual dimension. TERENCE CARTER
The Sacred Dancers of Angkor are touted as the only dance troupe in Cambodia with a spiritual dimension. TERENCE CARTER

“The dancers are very creative and extremely spiritual,” said De Gaiffier, who was impressed with how humble they were in the US, sleeping at pagodas.

“I want to do something to help. What they do is beautiful. It must be preserved.”

“This is how traditional Cambodian art should be appreciated,” Dara Huot, chief executive of the Phare Cambodian Circus, who was also in the audience, said of the performance, which began with lighting of incense at an altar in the centre of the stage.

Earlier that evening, the performers made offerings, prayed and meditated at Karet-Coxen’s traditional timber riverside house that serves as the foundation’s office and a place for the artists to prepare, eat and rest after their drive from Banteay Srei to Siem Reap, which sees the whole troupe pile into one truck.

There hadn’t been hours spent on elaborate make-up and hair styling.

The barefoot dancers dressed simply in elegant silk cotton costumes with coconut flowers adorning their wrists and ankles, their faces clean-scrubbed and tidy hair topped by crowns hand-woven from natural fibres by the dancers.

“I like that it is natural and pure, with emotion and soul,” Huot said.

“We’ve lost a lot of this sacred spirit with mass tourism.

I’m against Apsara shows during noisy buffets.

The dancers are paid terribly, sometimes as little as $1 a night.

How can we expect them to perform with dedication, and how can we expect tourists to appreciate our celestial dancers if they are terrible?”

“We’re really striving to protect, promote and perpetuate the delicate legacy of our culture,” Karet-Coxen explained.

“As the first dance and music conservatoire in a rural area, it has been a real challenge to get where we are, and it’s so far a success, but it would not have happened if we didn’t invest 15 years of development work empowering the 2,769 families in the 14 villages with a sustainable and dignified livelihood.” 

Karet-Coxen said it’s the only dance school in Cambodia, apart from the University of Fine Arts, where artists train five days a week.

Aged between nine and 18 years, they undertake compulsory training in classical and folk repertoires, traditional music, art classes and English lessons.

As the only school dedicated to sacred dance rituals and rites, the troupe had performed at thirty major Angkorian temples, while 66 of the performers had been ordained as monks and nuns for short periods to better understand Buddhism.

It’s this spiritual dimension that really sets the Sacred Dancers apart from the troupes performing nightly Apsara shows at Siem Reap hotels, restaurants and theatres, of which Karet-Coxen is critical.

“In my opinion, it is devaluating the sacredness and mystery of the Apsara,” she said.

“It’s terribly sad, as it seems to be for the most part a little mafia where dancers are only learning what they have to dance for their restaurant show. There’s no emotion, nor profound respect for our ancient art.”

Karet-Coxen said the dancers were sometimes “like automatons”, performing with disinterest to tourists more focused on the buffet, “to earn their little daily money, enabling their organisers to enrich themselves.”

She criticised show organisers for their lack of ethics and poor treatment of performers, calling for stricter controls on quality and regulations to force organisers to pay artists fairly and support proper training.

“This would force the organiser to give artists time and effort to train properly and pay them a better rate than $2.50 a night,” Karet-Coxen said, adding that dancers also had to cover their food and transport.

Karet-Coxen acknowledged there had been progress with the introduction of annual exams for dancers and a requirement for organisers to obtain licences, although she was critical of the rush by dancers to practise just to secure the license and that not all repertoires being performed were tested.

But above all, it’s the venue that upsets Karet-Coxen.

“The idea of having an Apsara show in a restaurant in front of people eating, drinking and talking is to me a total lack of respect toward an art renowned as sacred,” she said, suggesting it was demoralising for serious artists.

She applauded the Ministry of Culture for improving the situation by requiring that names of artists attached to the venue be submitted with licence applications.

“Hopefully it will encourage organisers to respect the culture and not go blindly for the money, turning something so precious into a mere commodity,” Karet-Coxen said.

“It is devaluing the sacredness of the Apsara.

I believe in the talent of the Sacred Dancers to be great ambassadors for the land of Angkor – an intangible heritage supporting the tangible heritage.”

“I appreciate what Madame Ravynn is doing,” Huot said.

“Sacred dancers should be treated with respect.

This is not dinner entertainment. The Apsaras are messengers of the gods. This is artistry. It should be supported.”

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