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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dance school teaches sacred arts

Dance school teaches sacred arts

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A Banteay Srey dance school started by Lady Coxen is transforming rough-edged girls from poor Siem Reap villages into disciplined performers of traditional ceremonies.

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Village children from Banteay Srey perform a sacred ritual to honour the King's 57th birthday. 

SIEM REAP
Aunique dance school founded by Lady Coxen, or Ravynn Karet Coxen, to train village children from Banteay Srey has been officially named following a sacred ritual earlier this month in honour of the King's birthday.

The village dance school has now been named NKFC Conservatoire Preah Ream Bopha Devi, Chhouk Sar - Banteay Srey, and operates under the High Patronage of Samdech Reach Botrei Preah Ream Norodom Bopha Devi.

Many factors make the school unique: Pupils must display "good manners" and adhere to a strict set of criteria, including the stipulation that "they will never perform in hotels or restaurants where people are eating or drinking" because "it is a real shame to see that form of art damaged and almost devalued to generate money as a mere entertainment to tourists".   

The school is just one component of the Siem Reap-based NGO, the Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia (NKFC), of which Coxen is chairman.

The NGO has a wide-ranging program encompassing health, education and agricultural improvements in 14 "adopted" villages in the Banteay Srey district involving just over 2,500 families. Some funds are now being raised by children selling 3,000 trees that were grown from seeds and saplings to teach the kids the importance of maintaining a healthy environment.  

This tree-planting program began last year when the children grew 2,000 trees and raised US$3,012.

The genesis of the dance school dates back three years ago when the King sent a DVD of a movie he'd made to Coxen.

She organised an evening of entertainment for the villagers, and blind musician Kong Nai, a master of the chapei, or Cambodian lute, sang relevant songs about drinking safe water and other hygiene tips.

Coxen also trained three children to perform a welcome dance before the movie screening, and when the King saw a video of the performance he was, according to Coxen, "completely flabbergasted and absolutely in love with the dancers. I was then asked to start a dance school".

"I started the school in our centre near Banteay Srey temple. We selected children and they were like little monkeys, undisciplined and loud.

But I had promised to start a dance school and I decided to give it a go. If in three months time it didn't work, I would skip it.

 "I put a dance teacher on three  months probation and then, OK, three months later I came to see them perform, and I had tears in my eyes. They had turned into little swans," she said.

"The discipline they showed was magnificent."

This year, the number of dancers has grown to 147, and the school carries on its mission of "transforming little muddy children into elegant and gracious creatures dancing with their soul".

In February, Coxen took 38 of her best dancers to Phnom Penh to perform for the King in the dance hall in front of the Royal Palace.

  Everybody now believes that the gods of Angkor were present during the ceremony.

"That was the first time in recent history that a dance was performed for the King. The King watched, not just as a king, but also as a teacher, and he was very pleasantly surprised and very complimentary. He was so moved by the precision of the rhythm and the movement."

She then decided to organise another special performance in honour of the King to coincide with his birthday and opted for a sacred ritual in the Banteay Srey temple using 57 dancers, signifying the age of the monarch.

"This sacred ritual probably hasn't been performed in a temple in at least a thousand years," she claimed. "In the morning, we planted 57 trees in honour of the King in the pagoda at Rohall village.

"As part of a traditional Boung Soung ritual, the 57 children then danced to choreography of mine, inspired by a sacred dance from the Reamker, or the Ramayana."

Coxen did away with traditional heavy costumes and make-up, and instead designed ethereal white gowns made partly from mosquito netting.

"I was inspired by the carvings at Angkor and kept the clothing very light, very divine, to appear as dew from the celestial gardens in the rays of the moonlight."

She fashioned hair extensions and braids to recreate the 1927 sketches of Sappho Marchal, then aged 23, the daughter of renowned French conservator of Angkor,  Henri Marchal.

After the dance, 57 komes - large lit kites - were released into the sky and then, when participants prepared to go home, the skies opened.

"When the ceremony concluded, guess what? The rain fell like crazy. Everybody now believes that the gods of Angkor were present during the ceremony. I also prayed for a week beforehand for no rain to ruin the ceremony."

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