Dance Costumes &
Royal Dance Spectacle
Classical Court Dance Music
Masked Theatre (Lakhon Khol)
Shadow Theatre (Nang Sbek)
Royal Palace of Phnom Penh
Kunthea's Dance Homepage
Chamrouen Yin's Classical Cambodian Dance Page
Poetry In Motion
Classical Cambodian Dance
A Determined Survivor Revives Khmer Classical
Cambodian Court Dance
Sam Ang Sam's Khmer Music page
Cambodian musical instrument report
Classical Dance at the Temple
Dance Spirit of Cambodia
Dance Spirit of Cambodia Arts & Culture
Classical Cambodian dance was one of the many
art forms that the Khmers regard as well as associated with the royal Khmer court of many
centuries ago. It is also one of the most highly expressive forms of art that still
survive today. Court dance was not just a source of entertainment for the royal court.
However it served many rituals whether public or private that continued right into the
20th century such as at coronations, funerals, honouring visiting head of state or for
religious purposes. The dancers were often believed to be the medium between the gods that
dwelled all around mankind, god-kings and mortals. Therefore court dance held many
significant to the king, the people and the entire nation. The dancers would perform
"boung soung" (paying respects to the heavenly deities) to promote and
induce rain for plentiful crops better harvest, fertility to the land, peace and
prosperity for the whole kingdom.
Court dance was generally assumed to have
developed in the 9th century under King Jayavarman II (802-850)
having returned from Indonesia. He also established the devaraja (god-king) cult
and founded the Khmer empire that was to last for several centuries. During the Angkorean
period from the 9th - 15th century A.D. many monuments began to appear and so did Khmer
art that included temple deities and apsaras (celestial nymphs) that guarded the
temples and entertained the gods. During the classical Angkorean age from 10th century to
14th century. Elegant apsaras began to appear in their thousands on temple gates,
bas-reliefs, pillars, pediments etc... The elegant nymphs were found especially carved on
the temple of Angkor Wat under the reign of King Suryavarman II (1113-1150)
that was to serve as his final resting place, as well as a temple dedicated to the Hindu
deity Vishnu. Angkor Wat also served as the finest example of Khmer art to the
Apsaras from Angkor Wat, photographed
by Sok Sothy
In the 11th century one
king gave one of his Brahmans the gift of ," one hundred beautiful magnificently adorned women... fifty
orchestras, copper cymbals, drums etc." While in the 13th century
the great King Jayavarman VII
a temple that he had just built , "a thousand dancers and in the rest of the temples
that covered the empire a total of one thousand six hundred and twenty-two dancers".
Dancers from the early
part of the 20th century performing at Angkor Wat
From the 15th
century onwards, the Khmer Empire began to slowly decline, imposing temples were no longer
constructed, and the imposing choreographic rituals slowly waned. A fatal blow came from
it's neighbouring Siamese kingdom that used to be part of the Angkorean vassal state
sacked the Khmer Empire's capital in 1431. Among their booty they took with them were:
slaves, artisans, musicians and the entire royal dance troupe to their capital
In the next four hundred years Cambodia entered the dark ages of it's history. Nothing is
known about court dance until the middle of the 19th century under the reign of King Ang
Duong (1796-1860) there saw the revival of Khmer arts. King Ang Duong was a patron of the
arts, his kingdom flourished with artisans, sculptors, poets, literature, music and a
royal dance troupe in his royal court. He set up his own dance troupe comprising of two
troupes one female and one male. These two evolved separately into two different art forms
that we see today. The male art form was supported by local governors and came to be known
as lakhon khol (masked theatre). However the female
troupe became the more dominant out of the two and came to be known was robam boran
or lakhon kabach boran (royal court dance).
During the reign of a new king a new dance
troupe would be arranged by a matron of the royal court. Women were usually of royalty,
relatives, concubines and wives. A woman according to her body type would be trained to
play a single role. Tall and slender women would play male and female roles such as heroes
and princess, while women with strong and large body types would play the roles of giants
and villains. Men only had small roles such as clowns and hermits. It was later generation
that the role of the monkey was played by men.
The Chan Chaya open air pavilion was
where the royal dancers would perform for important guests and visiting head of state.
This pavilion is at the front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
In the early part of the 20the century court dance was
declining because, there was insufficient allowances or the dancers just left to go to
school or get married. In former times there were about some 500 dancers. By 1904 there
were only 100 dancers left and about half of them accompanied King Sisowath to Europe to perform at
the Marseilles exhibition in 1906.
Princess Norodom Bopha Devi was a major member
of the Royal Ballet. She was just a mere handful of teacher who survived after the war to
help rebuild the Royal Cambodian Ballet.
From 1906 right through to the
late 1940s many writers marveled at the beauty and serenity of court dance. The writers
like Augusta Rodin, Malcom MacDonald and W. Somerset Maugham just to name a few were
captivated by gracefulness of the dancers performing ancient repertoires of many centuries
The sculptor Augusta Rodin who saw a rare
public performance of the royal dance troupe performing in Marseilles exhibition in 1906
was enchanted by the dancers said, "It is impossible to see human nature carried
to such perfection (...) There are so many who claim to have beauty, but who don't give
it. But the king of Cambodia give it to us. Even the children are great artists. This is
Malcolm MacDonald in his book "Angkor and
the Khmers" describes a performance by the Royal Corps de Ballet at Phnom Penh in
1948, "The story gave me me a fascinating glimpse of the link between the past and
the present, the unbroken history of the Khmer people and their direct descent of modern
Phnom Penh from ancient Angkor".
Queen Sisowath Kossamak Neary Rath who was
a strong patron of the arts like many before her.
|Court dance was revived again and was at it's
peak under the reign of Norodom Sihanouk (1941-1950) when his mother former Queen Sisowath Kossamak Neary Rath made
court dance an important part of the royal Khmer court. She also brought innovations like
introducing boys to play the role of the monkey and shortening the performances to fit
Western audiences that find it appropriate instead of performances before then that use to
run for a couple of days. Also she made the dance costumes more refined and
elaborate which Western audiences find so exotic. All these innovations began as early as
In the 1960s her grand-daughter Princess
Norodom Bopha Devi was also part of the court dance troupe. She became the prima
ballerina. One of her well known roles was to performing as Apsara Mera in the Apsara
dance. By 1962 there were 254 members of the dance troupe (2 male dance teachers, 17
female dance teachers, 6 prime dancers, 25 corps de ballet, 160 pupils, 30 dressers,
costumer, jewellery persons and makeup artists, 10 singers, and 4 male clowns) thus
showing that this era lakhon kabach boran was again an important aspect of the
Khmer king's power.
|In the 1970s with the overthrow of the royal
monarchy Khmer court dance began to decline and worst was to come during
the Khmer Communist Revolution known as the Khmer Rouge era from 1975-79.
The Khmer people suffered so much under this four year period that was
known as the "Killing Fields".
So many people died under starvation, persecution and execution. Khmer
culture also suffered especially court dance and many other art forms. What documents or
manuscripts that were recorded were all destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Those dancers who
could flee to neigbhouring refugee camps in Thailand kept the tradition alive and those
who stayed behind were killed off.
By 1979 there revival of Khmer art began a slow
and painstaking task of finding the surviving teachers and what documents that were
available to keep the art form alive. The sad irony is that court dance 90 per cent of the
dancers had vanished as well as many other art forms were rarely recorded or documented.
Everything was passed down orally from teacher to student for many hundreds of years. Once
the link had been broken it was hard to recover that link. A year later court dance only
had about a handful students that were recruited from orphanages that were taught be a
mere handful of teachers.
A scenes from the Reamker (Ramayana)
advertised on a poster in 1974.
Less than a decade later court dance was alive
again with more than one hundred students learning this ancient traditional art form in
Phnom Penh. The loss is still great with about a third of the dance repertoires- the steps-
gesture, movements, narratives-survived intact. However there seemed to be a lot of
support to see this art form ancient with such exquisite beauty and refinement that is
ranked as just one of the world's oldest traditions.