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Inside the princess’s ballet

Post Weekend, in collaboration with Le Petit Journal – Cambodge, was able to gain exclusive access to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, following them on their trip to Hong Kong and gleaning an intimate look at life behind the scenes of the legendary troupe.


Inside the princess’s ballet

Post Weekend, in collaboration with Le Petit Journal – Cambodge, was able to gain exclusive access to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, following them on their trip to Hong Kong and gleaning an intimate look at life behind the scenes of the legendary troupe.

By Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon in Hong Kong, Friday, 1 September 2017

For Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, the director of the Cambodian Royal Ballet, it does not matter if she is performing in a practice room, the Royal Palace or on the international stage.

“For me it’s training . . . In the palace, outside, in the forest or in the mountains, or in France, or China – the stage is always the same for me,” she said, bringing her hand to her chest and letting out a soft laugh.

For the sake of the centuries-old ballet’s continuity, she hopes her dancers share a similar view of their passion, she said, speaking to Post Weekend ahead of their Hong Kong debut in the cavernous lobby of the Kerry Hotel last Friday.

“Once I’m on the stage, I become a dancer, quite simply a dancer,” she added.

While Buppha Devi has not danced since 1991, over the past two decades she’s taken the helm of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, reviving it after it was all but destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Princess Norodom Buppha Devi speaks to Post Weekend at the Kerry Hotel. Morgan Havet

In that time she’s brought the ballet around the world gracing stages in New York, France, China, India and throughout Southeast Asia. The debut in Hong Kong is one of many steps for the ballet, which seems to have a better footing on the international stage than back home, where the arts often take a back seat in public life.

It’s only thanks to sponsors – for instance Cathay Dragon, the Shangri-La Group, and Hong Kong businessman Chen Yong Sieng – that the ballet could travel to Hong Kong, accompanied by a reporter.

For prima ballerina Chap Chamroeun Tola, 30 – who in 2010 danced a lead role in Apsara Mera, one of Buppha Devi’s most celebrated dance compositions, which tells the foundational myth of the Cambodian people – it’s a bittersweet reality.

“There is a stage for us outside of Cambodia more than inside,” she said.

Regardless, the ballet provides a unique opportunity for the dancers to see the world and, at the very least, be recognised for the lifetime commitment, with many starting as young as 5 or 6 years old to dance under the princess’s tutelage.

All the dancers Post Weekend spoke with said Buppha Devi is a loving and caring mentor.

“She’s like a mother to me,” Tola said, adding “She doesn’t mind much for being a princess.”

Makeup artist Van Sak Som applies finishing touches to classical dancer Van Votey before she takes the stage at the Cambodian Royal Ballet’s Hong Kong debut last weekend. It takes each dancer about five hours to be fully dressed and made up on a performance day. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

A Teacher Like No Other

Tola, who usually dances female roles in classical dance, says she prefers to dance opposite characters such as the giant – in which the dance portrays a fight – as opposed to with a prince character, danced by a female dancer, for which she must convincingly convey romance.

“I wanted to really act like the princess, but I did not feel love,” she said. “Actually I was like a tomboy when I was younger.”

In Khmer classical ballet, dancers typically take characters from a cast of four main types: the giant, the monkey, the male and the female. Scenes in ballet are drawn from folklore, myths and, most often, adapted from the Reamker – the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.

“To be honest, I’m good at fighting, I feel more strong when I perform that role . . . Love expression, it’s not really my type, but I have to [do it],” she said.

Buppha Devi forced Tola and her female partner playing the prince to stare each other down until all discomfort and awkwardness disappeared, Tola recalled. Her instructions were to remain motionless and “make contact softly”, with nothing more than smiles and eye contact to feel love. Only once the feeling was achieved, could they actually begin to dance.

“The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is not a spoken art, [expression] is through movement, so it is a must that [the dancers] understand well what they feel inside in order to show it through their gestures,” Buppha Devi explained.

Buppha Devi also hosts the ballerinas, musicians and professors at her own apartment in Phnom Penh to rehearse – owing in part to the inconvenience of the Secondary School of Fine Arts’s distant location in Phnom Penh Thmey commune, but also, she said, because it provides a more comfortable space for perfecting her dancers. “It’s like in a family.”

Technical Director Proeung Chhieng demonstrates how to make an act compelling. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Back in Hong Kong, Khon “Mo” Chansithyka, 26, and his younger brother Khon “Nan” Chansina, 24, who play the monkey and giant in a sequence of the masked dance Lakhon Khol, are marking their second performance with the Royal Ballet, and their international debut.

They’re forced to rehearse in a conference room at the Kerry Hotel due to Typhoon Hato cutting off access to the theatre at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. It’s the day before the show, and they’re receiving a last-minute master class in how to make their fight more compelling from virtuoso Proeung Chhieng, 67, the technical director of the ballet and a Lakhon Khol professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA).

“We act, but it’s real. We include the feeling and the energy inside. While we are fighting, we are trying to stop each other, so the vibration needs to come out of our hands,” Mo said.

Circling around them is Buppha Devi, who teases the two brothers for having Chhieng explain such small things.

“For us dancers, every time we have something to correct,” he said.

Out of an incoming class of 70 to 80 students at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, perhaps a tenth go on to RUFA, from which a handful have been selected for the Royal Ballet.

“The other teachers, they tell us ‘do this, do that’, but for the princess, she explains,” said 23-year-old dancer Sok Nalys, who danced the male role of the prince in Hong Kong opposite Tola. “She speaks gently to us, and she makes us feel confident.”

What’s more, under Buppha Devi, Nalys says the dancers feel a certain “freedom”, despite the highly regimented nature of classical dance, owing to the princess’s pushing the boundaries of tradition.

“She dares to change the things we do in the past that nobody dares to change,” she said.

Saun Serei on stage at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Reconstruction and Renovation

Master Chhieng was 8 years old when he joined the royal ballet, and only 9 when he first danced abroad in Egypt and Yugoslavia accompanying state visits. Like several other remaining masters of his generation in the princess’s entourage, he essentially grew up in the Royal Palace.

“In 1967 I became a dance teacher, and after the coup d’etat, in 1973, I joined Queen Kossamak in Peking [Beijing] to study there because she asked me if I wanted to study stage lighting in China,” he said. But the Cultural Revolution interrupted those plans, so he transferred to Pyongyang, North Korea.

“There the government did not allow foreigners to study lighting, so I learned choreography,” he said.

Chhieng returned to Cambodia in 1979, and took up teaching in Phnom Penh from 1982 onwards, but it was not until 1991 when King Norodom Sihanouk and Princess Norodom Buppha Devi returned for good that he would again be a part of the Royal Ballet when it reformed.

“Our former dancers who survived, with our new dancers we organised one night to welcome the King, and that was her [Buppha Devi’s] last dance in 1991,” he recalled.

For Chhieng, working with Buppha Devi since the Khmer Rouge has been a work of creative evolution, as well as reconstructing Khmer classical dance.

“We innovate some classical dances, sometimes we create some dances,” he said.

Dancers commit their lives to the craft, and are hardly rewarded for their devotion. Many quit along the way, or face social pressures to give up – a common narrative across the arts in the Kingdom.

As with the Sangkum period, dancers in the Royal Ballet are typically employed as civil servants, although back then it was the Ministry of Education rather than Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

However, today, foreign tours are not covered, while during the Sangkum, the ballet would travel with the head of state. What’s more, the pay of nearly $200 per month (plus about $30 to $70 per performance) means that most dancers who aren’t also students work more than one job. As the princess notes, “It’s always difficult.”

“It’s complicated with the government, sometimes I have no words,” said Tola of the lack of public financial support for the ballet.

“When you want the arts to live, but not the dancers to live, then what’s wrong? We need a solution to protect artists,” she said. Tola for her part, seeks to educate the public through her Facebook account, where she’s amassed over 52,000 followers.

“Khmer people themselves they don’t know what an Apsara is,” she said, lamenting that the term – which refers to a specific character or a dance – is often misused as a catchall for all classical dance.

A giant and monkey fight. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Continuing the Legacy

Master Voan Savay, 66, danced with Buppha Devi in the 1960s as second dancer. Buppha Devi, who started dancing at the age of 5, became prima ballerina at the age of 18 in the 1950s. Savay sees her commitment to the princess’s Royal Ballet as her life duty.

“I am always happy to work with her, I think it is my duty – in my life there is nothing but dance,” she said.

But with Buppha Devi now in her mid-70s, the question is whether the passion and innovation that has dominated her tenure will be kept alive by whomever succeeds her, which will, for the first time in history, be someone from outside the Royal family.

“Every generation puts new steps to the same stories,” said Master Chhieng, whose grandmother taught Buppha Devi to dance.

Her maternal grandmother, Queen Sisowath Kossamak, is widely credited with restoring the ballet from a state of decay near the turn of the century, reinventing and readapting pieces.

“I do nothing more than following that tradition,” Buppha Devi said.

“It’s absolutely natural that I became one of the dancers of the school of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, because it’s always the Khmer royal family that has managed it with each passing generation . . . I lived in the ambience of the Royal Palace,” the princess says, recalling how she would start each day in the rehearsal rooms of the palace.

“It’s difficult to predict how the future of the Royal Ballet will be,” she said, adding that her own experience, however, informs an optimistic outlook.

When Buppha Devi could not dance during the Pol Pot regime, she notes, she instead taught children in the Thai border refugee camps “to give them a little bit of hope, or joie de vivre”.

“Surely, there will be someone . . . I will not live one hundred years,” she said with one last laugh.