The Court Ballet: Cambodia's Loveliest Jewel

A pair of giant basrelief dancers frames the main entrance to Phnom Penh's palace compound. With cured-back hands and diaphanous stone sarongs, these apsaras, or heavenly dancing nymphs, are fitting gatekeepers for Cambodian royalty. True, it has been two decades - and three regimes - since kings held court in these saffron-roofed halls. But just 20 years ago, on the ornate second story of Chan Chhaya pavilion, directly above the stone apsaras, the queen of Cambodia herself presided over the court ballet that was the country's loveliest jewel. She encouraged hundreds of beautiful girls as they angled their bodies into the gorgeous, impossible poses that Cambodians trace back to carvings on the magnificent twelfth-century Angkor Wat temples.

Sewn into sumptuous sequined velvet and brocade, adorned in bangles and high-spired crowns, the queen's troupe performed for heads of state from Richard Nixon to Chou en Lai, from Charles de Gaulle to Haile Selassie. Throughout the 1960s, as Prince Norodom Sihanouk juggled to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War, he constantly showed off the court ballet, offering this living treasure as an irrefutable argument that his small, precious country must not be smashed.

The palace ballet performed not only for foreign temporal powers, but for the gods themselves. According to Khmer legend, royal dancers have had ties with divinity since the beginning of history: the first kings of ancient Kambuja copulated with celestial dancers to bring fertility to the land. For centuries thereafter, it seems, Cambodia's god-kings remained connected to the wellsprings of life through their harem of dancers, earthly embodiments of the apsaras. And in modern times, the court dance has served as a form of royal offering or prayer. In the late years of Sihanouk's reign, with Cambodia reeling from drought and US bombardment, the prince looked to the dance for help. In the throne room of the royal palace, court dancers performed Buong Suong (sacred dances), beseeching the heavenly powers for rice and for peace.

A Sequestered World

At one time, this royal throne room served as a threshold not only to the divine but also to the more mundane backstage world of Cambodia's court dance. By winding through curtained doorways and halls behind the throne chamber and past royal bedrooms, music rooms, and baths, one entered the sequestered, totally private royal quarters.

Today, this hidden area bears little sign of its former lie as a spawning ground for Cambodia's royal art. Even its more recent history of fading: weeds encroach of Prince Sihanouk's personal basketball court; the Mediterranean-blue tiles of his swimming pool lie smashed and scattered. But before 1941, prior to its stint as a princely spa, this forbidden compound housed the harem cum dance conservatory of Cambodia's kings.

Home to all the royal dancers and hosts of their female relative (male children were sent away before reaching puberty), the little rectangular, walled village was home to hundreds of women. Apart from eunuchs, the king was the only man permitted in the compound, and the dancers were allowed out only once or twice a year, under close guard, for such special ceremonies as the king's birthday. Dancers who had no children lived with their relatives in rows of attached rooms made from wood or brick. But each year saw two or three births (the compound had its own lying-in house), and women who had borne the king's children received separate, free-standing houses, which dotted the grounds.

Meanwhile, retired dancers or relatives sometimes supplemented the tiny royal stipends by peddling soup and snacks, set up on little tables near their rooms. And since the dancers couldn't go out to the markets, certain vendors were allowed to come inside - to sell sarongs and foodstuffs, as well as the yellow and alabaster powders and the scarlet Chinese paper that dancers used as performance makeup. The dancers themselves, in shifts of 20 or so, helped to serve the king's meals, fanning and entertaining him while he dined.

But the real business of the compound - certainly as Chea Samy, a star dancer of the period, tells it - was the royal ballet. In those days, rehearsals took place in a large, simple wooden pavilion in the private area. Each morning the girls gathered in its shade, dressed in rehearsal clothes - short-sleeved bodices and change kben sarongs (long cloths twisted and pulled through the legs into pantaloons). Under the gaze of dance mistresses wielding long bamboo sticks, the stretched their joints to curl back fingers, hyperextend elbows, and open out hips. Then began the long, arduous Chha Banchhos, the choreographed routine of "mother poses" that forms the basis for Cambodian dance.

In the afternoon, students dispersed around the compound to work with individual teacher - in most cases, the retired dancers who had brought them to the place. Each performer specialized in one of the dance's four roles. Little girls with delicate frames and round faces were typecast, from childhood, to play female characters. Slightly larger-boned girls with long faces danced the male roles, which required a broader stance and bolder gestures. Those with supple bodies but less perfect faces were typed as ogres, masked characters, who moved in a wide, high-kneed gait. And certain girls were chosen to play the sprightly, masked monkeys of Ramayana dances.

The high points of dancers' lives were the gala ceremonial performances. For the annual royal birthday celebrations on the river, performers started dressing at midday, washing, creaming, and powdering. Then former dancers would help with the costuming - sewing on bodices skin-tight along side seams, folding and tacking elaborate pleats and drapes in the brocade sarongs, stitching embroidered velvet scarves and gilded leather armlets into place. (Dancers ate little on these days; once their costumes were sewn on, they would be unable to use the toilet until they'd finished performing.) The last pieces to go on were masks, for ogres or monkeys, and mkot, replicas of royal coronation crowns, for male and female roles. Donning these, the dancer would press her hands together in sampeah, asking for blessing from the kru, the teachers and spirits of the dance. Then the dancers would emerge from the place and walk the few hundred yards to the river - shielded from public view by temporary walls erected each year for that purpose.

At sunset, on platforms atop the water, the night-long dances began. To the music of the percussion and flute pinpeat orchestra, episode after episode unfolded. Sometimes the program consisted of a sequence of short legends and blessings; sometimes it was a single, long drama. Often, a highlight was the dramatic dance Moni Mehkala - played either as a single excerpt or as part of a longer narrative.

The central episode of this sacred piece begins as the water deity Moni Mehkala dances onto the stage. Accompanied by a tendril-like melody on a bamboo flute and cascades of wooden-xylophone and brass-gong ripples, she settles on a low wooden platform. Curving her arms in rhythmic pulses, angling her legs up behind her, the dancer illustrates the chanted narration - telling how the nimble goddess dresses and how she swims through the ocean and the air. In her right hand or at her feet, the dancer keeps her magical attribute: a small, glittering ball.

No Ream Eyso, the storm spirit, enters the space. The ogre wears an oversized bronze-green and gold mask and wields a small, spangled axe. While Mehkala continues her delicate, shimmering dance of flight, he approaches - using bold, wide steps, his knees, ankles, and toes all flexed. In a parody of princely courtship, Ream Eyso tries to seduce the nymph into surrendering her magic ball. When this fails, he demands that she surrender it. As they dance around each other in wide arcs, the goddess taunts him, keeping her lofty composure, while the ogre rages in a high-kneed stomp. He circles an open palm near his ear 0 a gesture of fury. Finally, Ream Eyso spins his sparkling axe and hurls it toward the goddess. But Mehkala, unshaken by the thunder, continues to dance. After a moment, without breaking her legato grace, she tosses her magic ball, lighting up the heavens. The dazzle knocks the ogre off his feet - and creates rain to nourish the fertile land of Cambodia.

Their roles finished, the girls who has played the roles of Mehkala and the ogre would return to the place and remove their costumes. In the wee hours of the morning, they would eat their first big meal of the day, then go to sleep. As the dance ceremony continued, other girls would trickle back to the palace in small groups throughout the night - to remain inside its walls for, perhaps, another year before their next excursion.

Stepping Into Modernity

This bittersweet prison life came to an end in 1941 with the death of King Monivong. The French colonial powers chose the opportunity to cut back on the royal expense account - and the royal aura - by eliminating the harem of dancers in the back compound. They apparently expected no objections from Norodom Sihanouk, the saxophone-playing teenager they established as the new king.

But young King Sihanouk was more shrewd than the French had reckoned when it came to sensing threats to the royal interest. And the Queen Mother, Kossamak, not only understood the political and spiritual importance of the royal ballet, but loved the art. She built a rehearsal pavilion in her own living compound, a short distance south of the palace. Though most of the evicted ex-palace dancers moved in with family members in Phnom Penh, Kossamak built rows of rooms in her own compound for dancers with nowhere else to live. Daily rehearsals continued, and the dance was maintained as the royal ballet. Two years later, when Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father in order to enter the political arena as a "prince," Queen Kossamak brought dance training back inside the palace, to Chan Chhaya pavilion. With renewed vigor, the court ballet played its role as diplomatic and celestial ambassador; during the 1960s, its chief star was Sihanouk's own daughter, Princess Bopha Devi.

As impresaria of the royal ballet, the queen did modernize the traditional art in certain ways. First, she brought boys into the corps in the monkey roles, which subsequently became more staccato and acrobatic, in the style of Cambodia's traditional male dance-drama, Lakhon Khol. Also, as dance became more for diplomatic entertainment than for night-long ceremonies, the queen encouraged shorter pieces, some just 15 minutes long. And, perhaps influenced by Western dance, she promoted more lyrical works, with group choreography illustrating poetry rather than story lines. She had the dance mistresses choreograph Tep Monorom, perhaps the most beautiful group ballet in the repertory, and she commissioned a new piece based on costumes and postures in the Angkor Wat basreliefs - the so-called Apsara dance.

In some ways, the new world of the dance was a far cry from the old harem conservatory. Dancers lived all around the city, and could date and marry whomever their families permitted. Moreover, anyone could participate in the Chha Banchhos workthroughs. On school holidays, each Thursday and Sunday, schoolgirls would take buses or pedicabs to the palace, put on their market-bought rehearsal garb, and dance along with the palace corps de ballet. Often the queen would watch over these crowded work sessions, on the lookout for talent.

During the late 1950s, Chan Chhaya pavilion had one particularly anomalous dance student: a 27-year-old male clown. A scholar as well as comic actor and dancer, the young man, named Chheng Phon, wanted to understand the classical dance somatically and spiritually as well as intellectually. Each day, he stretched and bent his reluctant limbs, working alongside eight-year-old girls, learning all the roles. The queen encouraged him, and told colleagues that she had found an excellent candidate for the expert professor of dance she hoped to develop. At the time, no one could anticipate just how crucial such a champion of the art would one day be in the wake of the Khmer Rouge's savaging of the dance and dancers.

The Art of Survival

The fortunes of the court art - and the country - began to careen in 1970, when Sihanouk was overthrown in a right-wing coup. The royal dance lost its star - Princes Bopha Devi, who moved to Paris - as well as its impresaria - the queen, who joined her deposed son in Peking. According to some dancers who remained, it lost its morale as well. Still, the traditional ballet continued in the ex-royal palace, and most dancers stayed on. After all, with more than a million war refugees in Phnom Penh and grotesque inflation, few people were in a position to give up their jobs.

The precarious situation collapsed completely in April 1975 when the fanatical Khmer Rouge communists seized control of the country. Given Pol Pot's determination to remake Cambodia from scratch and begin at "year zero" as a peasant society, the ex-royal ballet ranked high on the Khmer Rouge's list for eradication.

Few artists of the court ballet survived the Khmer rouge's killing fields. Those who did so made it through by a combination of street-smarts and luck. Chea Samy, who was extremely famous, fortunately wound up in an area populated mainly by ethnic minorities, who had never heard of her. She convinced the local cadre that she had worked as a vendor in the market. Minh Kossony, a star dancer of the Sihanouk era, admitted she had been a dancer - nearly anyone who had seen recent Cambodian newspapers and magazines would have recognized her face. When she realized that the illiterate Khmer Rouge authorities thought she meant a bar dancer, she continued using that story. Chheng Phon, after learning classical dance, had become a professor at the Fine Arts University and director of the National Conservatory. A marked man, he subsisted through Pol Pot times deep in the forest in the north of the country, tending water buffalo, his whereabouts unknown to the Khmer Rouge teams the hunted him as far as the northwestern city of Battambang.

Finally, in January 1979, an invasion by neighboring Vietnam ended the Khmer rouge nightmare. Almost immediately artists began to reassemble the shards left by the Khmer Rouge. Within a few months - by the Khmer New Year of April 1979 - Chheng Phon and colleagues in Kompong Thom city were able to stage a dance performance, using the few instruments they could find, makeshift costumes, and a great deal of determination.

Returning to Phnom Penh, Chheng Phon was named minister of information and culture in 1981 and started a new Fine Arts School. Navigating at times around directives from Vietnamese "experts" as well as the new Cambodian government established by Hanoi, his priority was to reconstruct the culture in order t help heal the country. By 1985, he could claim substantial victories in both the official and the artistic battles.

Today, Cambodia's dancers and teachers have restored the repertory and have trained a fine corps of young performers. Every month Chheng Phon gives lectures to artists about the spiritual dimension of their work. Dancers in Phnom Penh in 1990 still perform traditional ceremonies, including those honoring the kru, the spirits and teachers of the dance.

From time to time, people entering the palace compound between the two stone apsaras can still hear a pinpeat orchestra accompanying the ancient court ballet. Though the dancers normally practice and perform in their new Fine Arts School or in the big, modern Tonle Bassac Theater, they occasionally return to the palace for a specially commissioned performance - as in the old days.

In today's changed, nonroyal Cambodia, Chheng Phon says, the ancient court dance still plays a role in maintaining the national well-being. True, the palace is a museum now, and the military and political situations remain volatile. But with the Khmer rouge cadres fattening their ammunition piles and terrorizing villages within a few miles of the capital, Chheng Phon sees culture - including the ancient court dance - as an important line of defense. The real enemy, he insists, is ignorance.


1. The king was said to renew the land each night by mating with a naga, a sacred serpent, brought to him in the form of a woman. Since the royal dancers comprised the king's harem - and given the legend of the first king's union with the apsaras - it seems a reasonable guess that the king's nightly partners in fertilizing his land were his dancers.

2. Chea Samy is my main source for information about the dance and dancers' lives in the period of King Monivong, Sihanouk's predecessor.

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CSQ Issue:

14-3 Cambodia

September 1990