Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Time travelling through ballet

Time travelling through ballet

The Cambodian Royal Ballet practises yesterday for three upcoming performances this weekend.
The Cambodian Royal Ballet practises yesterday for three upcoming performances this weekend. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Time travelling through ballet

Audiences attending any of the three performances of the Cambodian Royal Ballet’s show Memories in Motion today and on Saturday will be treated to a time-travelling tour of Khmer classical dance.

“Firstly it will be the dance of the Prince Sisowath period, second is the period of Samdech [Queen Sisowath] Kossamak, and third is the period of prince [Norodom] Sihanouk,” says ballet master Voan Savay, a former dancer and long-time teacher for the Royal Ballet.

The Sisowath period, dating back to the early 20th century, is the most distinct form, as a spectator can clearly see from the movements, costumes and makeup, Savay explains.

“The face [of the dancer] is all white and there’s no smiling. We dance as if we had a mask on,” she says of the older style of royal court dancing.

“The costumes are longer . . . and with more sombre colours, and body movements are supple but punctuated,” she says, adding that there is also no difference between the male and female hand movements.

The production is on a massive scale, with a team of 160 people, including over 70 male and female dancers on stage, over the course of multiple scenes. A handful of them, like dancer Vankosaun Serei, will have to undergo labourious changes of costume.

After performing as the “princess of the oceans” in a Sisowath-era interpretation of the Moni Mekhala dance – in which she fights the axe-wielding giant Ream Eyso – Serei will have to transform herself backstage into a Sihanouk-era Apsara.

“The white powder is very thick to wash off,” she says, adding that the dancers getting changed will need “the help of maybe six or seven make-up artists”.

See behind the scenes as the Cambodian Royal Ballet prepare for their debut in Hong Kong:

Under Queen Kossamak, the grandmother and teacher of Royal Ballet Director Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, the style at the court underwent a “khmerisation”, according to the princess.

“There was, let’s say, exchanges between Cambodia and Thailand, so my grandmother had the idea of khmerising entirely the influence,” she says.

As a result, by the time Buppha Devi was learning, the Sisowath-period style was no longer being taught. A century later, that style had to be reconstructed from old photos and archival footage collected by the French.

What has not changed over the course of the century is the music, though, and from the Kossamak and Sihanouk period, the dances and costumes are essentially the same, says costume designer Sylvain Lim.

What did change was the role and audience of classical dance, and with that, aspects of its choreography. As a result of the dance leaving the Royal Court and being used for state functions and ceremonies, the Royal Ballet had to modernise and adapt itself to each performance.

“It had to be adapted for those who may not be used to seeing [the Royal Ballet],” Lim says, noting that the Sihanouk period was marked by the ballet performing for more than just a palace audience.

For the first time, he noted, the public suddenly could see the performances with its own eyes – and will again this weekend.

Memories in Motion will be on at Chaktomuk today at 6:30pm and again on Saturday at 3:30pm and 6:30pm. Tickets can be purchased at the Bophana Center, the French Institute, Khema Restaurant or online here.

MOST VIEWED

  • Kingdom’s domestic milk still cannot compete with imports

    Price competition and a lack of confidence by consumers are the main reasons the dairy market cannot compete with imports, said domestic milk producers. The large displays of imported fresh milk at the Kingdom’s supermarkets present a cumbersome obstacle for local producers, they said.

  • ‘Pesticide-laden cucumbers’ kill two, poison 150 in Banteay Meanchey

    At least two youths have died and 243 others are being treated for vomiting, diarrhoea, breathing difficulties, dizziness and muscle weakness after they ate cucumbers suspected to consist of pesticides. The incident happened on Saturday, said Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Ath Khem. He told The

  • Three dead, 13 injured in collapse at Siem Reap pagoda

    At least three people were killed and more than 10 others injured on Monday after a dining hall under construction collapsed at Prasat Kokchak pagoda in Kokchak commune, Siem Reap province. Provincial police chief Tith Narong said Military Police, soldiers and local volunteers had successfully recovered 16

  • Forest Harmony’s $18M luxury villas break ground in Kampot

    Local and French joint-venture Forest Harmony has broken ground on its $18 million “second-home” Luxury Holiday Villas project in Kampot province. Century 21 Mekong CEO and local shareholder of the project Chrek Soknim told The Post that the project will comprise 90 villa units covering 18ha on a 97

  • China Unicom enters Cambodia

    China Unicom, the country’s largest telecoms operator, has expanded into Cambodia to build optical telecommunication pathways in the Kingdom as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Hong Kong-listed company officially opened its China Unicom (Cambodia) subsidiary on Monday to become the

  • PP-SHV Expressway on track for completion in early 2023

    The construction of the $1.9 billion Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway, which broke ground at the end of March, is on track to be completed by early 2023, Ministry of Public Works and Transport spokesman Vasim Sorya said on Monday. The 190km high-speed highway linking the capital to the