Let me tell you about the first time I danced,” says HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, through her translator. At 70, the former star of Cambodia’s Royal Ballet and daughter of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk still has the delicate physical features of a classical dancer. Apsara hands, which are flexed to elastic extreme and furled, like a light-sensitive flower, have come to symbolise the sublime physicality of Cambodian dance. The princess’s hands, in which a mild cigarette is often balancing, underwent strict contortion exercises as a child, when she was chosen to perform as part of the Royal Ballet. Fingers and toes were pressed painfully back on the joints and limbs made supple to support the bent-leg movement of the dancers.
“My father, who is the late King, assigned me to welcome the King of Laos. I was about five years old, so it would have been in 1948 or ’49,” she says. “Usually, this dance was only performed in ceremonies, as a message to God, but this time was perhaps the first time it was presented in public, to an honourable guest.”
In displaying the Royal family’s bejeweled ceremonial dancers to a foreign dignitary, Sihanouk opened up the form to a public audience. Before 1940, when Cambodia’s independence was won from the French, classical dance was a tradition mostly confined to the court, though.
Now, classical Cambodian dance will again be on the international stage, when in just a touch over two weeks, the Royal Ballet, along with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s dance company Khmer Arts, will be bring the unique dance form to New York for Season of Cambodia, the two-month-long “living arts festival” of art and music.
It will be the first time the Royal Ballet has performed in the United States in more than 20 years, when the re-created troupe toured for the first time since the dance form was all but wiped out under Khmer Rouge. Much in the company has developed since then, and the opportunity is an important one, says the Princess.
“This is a significant time. It’s very important that we can present our work at the international stage.”
By 1979, all but 10 per cent of the Royal Ballet artists and masters had died under the Khmer Rouge. The Palace troupe, which the Princess likens to the Opera de Paris or Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, was a way of life for its performers. Children joined at six years of age and lived at the palace while undergoing a dance regime that was not only physically demanding – “painful”, adds Proeung Chhieng, current director of the Royal Ballet – but mentally as well.
“It is physically challenging but also spiritually – it takes a lot of patience and strength and energy.
“Not only one, but a few are masters – really outstanding, you know, the best masters who can train.”
Performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on May 2 to 4 will be an unparalleled opportunity to showcase the Ballet in the context of Cambodia’s contemporary arts and to show how much of the art form has been revived.
While the Royal Ballet brings life to once-lost traditions, Khmer Arts’ A Bend in the River, from esteemed choreographer Cheam Shapiro, offers a contemporary slant on the art form. The former Royal University of Fine Arts-trained dancer and director brings a sensibility born from the experience of the Khmer Rouge and explores re-worked myths and social issues, says her husband and Khmer Arts executive director John Shapiro.
“Sophiline learned to dance after the Khmer rouge. The ’80s were the era after black – the grey era? It was impossible to be celebratory alone. For her, her life was informed by that,” he says.
“Cambodia was a place with wonderful traditions and incredible sad legacies. Her work reflects that dichotomy”.
Sitting in the white, light-filled living room of her contemporary leveled house in Phnom Penh, portraits of the current King, King Father and Queen look out over the lounge room.
Being the lead dancer in a troupe take special qualities and not every generation necessarily has one, she and Proeung explain.
“The nature is very important. You can be born with it – but that’s not all. Even thought my father, the King, saw this talent in me, my grandmother really put me into the hard training, that I had to go and train with all these important masters, during school time, even during vacation; I had to do that a lot . . . The training is so important in the culture of the royal classical ballet. And to become a star, you have to go through that painful training process,” she says.
The daughter of court dancer Neak Moneang Phat Kanhol, Princess Buppha Devi was raised and taught by her grandmother, Queen Sisowath Kosamak, who introduced new movements to the traditional classical dance form when Sihanouk took reign. With no written records of classical choreography, it is only through oral history, from the few surviving masters and dancers, that the movements and hand gestures have been re-learned.
In Angkorian times, religious dance was centred around Brahmins. By the time Buddhism took hold, the dance had lost its religious meaning, but with their highly honed physical skills, dancers still played the role of “messengers to the Gods”.
“There are more than 4,000 hand gestures involved in classical dance, according to research. We cannot really find that number yet – we know of about 10 per cent,” the Princess says as she moves her hand gently and points to demonstrate the slight but important variations in the dance. For Apsara Mera, the 40-person show put together for a Season of Cambodia, the Ballet worked traditional story-telling dances with established choreographed routines.
“I cannot claim that it is 100 per cent my work. In my choreography, I take things in from the existing repertoire – [however] I initiated the idea for this work,” the Princess says.
“I have to acknowledge my grandmother who during her time [was] the mother of culture in Cambodia in the 1960s. She spearheaded the creation of new classical dance at that time meeting an existing repertoire – and I am inspired by her and I would like to preserve this. But I cannot just show this as the work of the Royal Ballet. So inspired by that, I could choose the existing repertoire and add this story into it. So that the repertoire is in it, but there is a story connected to it.”
A key difference in the ballet of 2013 and the pre-Sihanouk era is the role given to male dancers. The traditional monkey character, Hanuman, who jumps around and wears a mask, began to be taught to boys, who, it was thought, could exercise more agility.
When he was 12 years old, Preoung Chhieng (now 64) first saw the dance with his grandmother, also a Royal Ballet instructor, and began imitating the moves.
“My grandmother saw that I could dance, and so she got me and my young sister to offer to the Queen to become Royal Ballet students and I began when I was eight years old. [We lived in the palace], you see – my grandmother was living in the palace and she worked with the Queen.”
Chhieng was in North Korea as the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. When he returned in 1978, he was interned in a camp for students who’d been abroad, and he escaped death by hiding his identity as a performer. His eventual return to the Royal University of Fine Arts, a dance master, was a long one but led to the reformation of a Royal Ballet – with survivors becoming masters and students, like Cheam Shapiro, becoming the post-genocide generation of artists.
“The survivors are our dictionary. We got all the surviving teachers, the musicians, teachers and little by little, with the support of the international community, especially the Rockefeller association . . . we [were able to] revive it – until 2003.”
In November 2003, Cambodia’s Ballet was recognized by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage”, a measure in which the Princess, who returned to Cambodia in 1991, takes pride.
“I dare not claim the prize of really ushering this heritage at the quality they did in the 1960s or at the level they did in Angkor times, because it was really a fabulous heritage,” says the Princess
Next week the Ballet are touring France, where they have performed before, and then going on to make a fresh mark on New York, helping spread a new legend of the Royal Ballet and the art form that survived to tell the tale. .