Masked dance group goes to war

Dancers from the Lakhon Khol Youth of Cambodia rehearse this month at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
Dancers from the Lakhon Khol Youth of Cambodia rehearse this month at the Royal University of Fine Arts. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Masked dance group goes to war

An army of monstrous birds will be clashing with legions of divine monkeys on stage at Beltei International University on Sunday – in an interpretation of Satalong, a mythical battle from the Hindu epic the Ramayana.

Despite being a largely amateur production, the scale of the Lakhon Khol performance – a traditional form of Khmer masked theatre and dance – is massive.

“This performance takes nearly 70 artists on stage. Of all the ones we’ve done before this is the biggest,” says Khon “Mo” Chansithyka, the general manager of the Lakhon Khol Youth of Cambodia.

The group, which has put on a performance about every six months, came together a year and half ago and consists of a collection of mainly student and amateur practitioners of the craft. For the last month and a half, they have been rehearsing on Sundays at an outdoor space at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA).

See the troupe in action:

“They are not professional dancers, but they are free on the weekend and they started learning it,” Mo says.

The 26-year-old is a lead Lakhon Khol dancer in the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, along with his brother Khon “Nan” Chansina, 24. Nan will interpret the role of the monster Satalong and also came up with the choreography for the production. A group of RUFA graduates will play traditional Khmer orchestral music.

“I performed this five years ago, for a RUFA graduation performance, but the technique and dance will be completely different,” says Nan, whose task involved choreographing two armies of 25 dancers each, plus the main characters. Many of those “soldiers” are younger members of the team such as 13-year-old Pheap Sovankakada.

“I’m a small monkey in the army of Rama,” he says. “I have to train hard like a soldier and be speedy and strong to fight the bird monster.” 

Pheap Sovankakada.
Pheap Sovankakada. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Satalong, or The Bird Monster Battle, as the group has titled the show in English, depicts a scene from the Ramayana in which the “evil” Ravana, the King of the Giants who kidnapped the Princess Sita, and Lord Rama do battle through proxies.

Of course, the good guys prevail in the end, but not before multiple epic fights after Ravana sends the “bird monster” to do battle.

Rama, meanwhile, enlists his brother Lakshmana to fight, aided by the monkey god Hanuman and his army.

The performance is free in the interest of promoting the art form, which has seen a steady decline in popularity over the decades since its glory days in the 1940s and ’50s, with only a handful of RUFA graduates pursuing the major each year. It was sponsored by the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and with private donations, including from Hun Many, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sons.

“Most of [our budget] comes from private citizens . . . about 60 percent,” he says. “The volunteers, the artists when we collaborate, we try not to think about the money.”

Satalong is on at Beltei International University on October 29 at 9am and at 4:30pm. Tickets are free but donations are encouraged at the door. To reserve call: 016 505 1682 / 081 552 123/ 098 770 076.

Video by Charlotte Pert

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