The Kingdom’s artistic legacy barely survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Decades on, traditional dancers from Cambodian Living Arts are enthralling audiences once more
By Daniel Besant Photography by Sam Jam
As the lights come up, three sumptuously clad dancers appear out of the gloom. In the middle, dressed in white robes with an intricate, pointed golden headdress and frangipani and jasmine blooms in her hair, is the lead dancer. Two more performers, no less magnificently attired, flank her.
They pose impassively, replicating the stone carvings of celestial apsara dancers that adorn the walls of Cambodia’s jewel in the archaeological crown – Angkor Wat. Slowly, with exquisite poise and grace, they begin to move, each a mirror for the others’ movements. It is as if the ancient Angkorian carvings are coming to life.
The dancers are part of a troupe trained by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an organisation dedicated to the revival of Khmer arts and to providing a living wage to performers. Tonight’s hour-long show takes the enraptured audience through the gamut of traditional and classical styles, some from rich royal traditions, others based in the cycles of farming life.
To the side of the stage, set in the gardens of Cambodia’s National Museum, musicians from a mini orchestra accompany the dancers, their complex rhythms and sinuous melodies providing markers for the dancer’s motions. After the apsara dancers exit, some more mischievous characters tumble on to the stage. A young girl squeals in delight as two men wearing monkey masks cavort, mimicking simian moves and gestures right down to the scratching of irritating itches. Despite the levity, the dance is steeped in ancient tradition, being part of the Reamker, a Khmer version of the Indian epic Ramayana.
Others have more earthly origins, with props including fish traps, wicker scoops and long rice-threshing sticks – reflecting the country’s deep agricultural roots. In the tonaitin (harvest dance), the performers sway, bend and turn, replicating the age-old process of planting and harvesting rice. Later, the kuos ang-kre (rice-threshing dance) employs the aforementioned sticks, the dancers jumping in and out of the space between the fast-moving farm tools before a pair of performers clack them together and catch a dancer’s ankles.
This dance is a favourite for Din Darathtey, CLA’s communications coordinator. “It’s done at Khmer New Year in the villages. It brings back good memories,” she says. “Nowadays,
I live in the city, so I don’t get to see it that often.”
Sitting in the museum gardens before a performance, 25-year-old Neang Visal, one of the dancers, speaks of his love of the arts and his passion for dance. Visal was brought up in Phnom Penh’s White Building, a 1960s concrete housing project that is home to many artists, musicians and performers and which now is rumoured to be under threat of demolition. “Through dance, tourists can learn about Cambodian life, culture and history,” Visal says. “And Cambodians are not generally interested in the arts, so it’s good to show them too.”
It’s no understatement to say that the arts have suffered. Under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979, artists were targets. Up to 90% of them died, many singled out for execution. This devastating blow almost destroyed many of the country’s rich artistic traditions. But from the ashes, those artists who survived began to teach a new generation their skills and the fruits of these efforts can be witnessed in this show.
At the forefront of this revival is CLA, which was founded as the Cambodian Master Performers Programme in 1998 to support four surviving traditional artists so that they could pass on their skills and knowledge to a new generation. Now CLA assists ten master artists who teach hundreds of young Cambodians across the country.
Back at the museum, a turquoise-costumed dancer with an elaborate train takes the stage. This is the Pailin Peacock Dance, which comes from the Kola ethnic minority in northwestern Cambodia. Joined by a similarly attired performer, the pair then mimic the mating ritual of the fine-feathered fowl.
And to end the evening, a red-cheeked man appears from the back of the hall, the actor playing a seller of palm wine with ribald humour and friendly bonhomie. He leads the ensemble in the aforementioned kuos ang-kre, the percussive noises of sticks, drums and stamping feet bringing a rousing end to the evening.