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Royal Dance Spectacles

History and background of Court Dance

Dance Costumes & Dance Characters

Classical Court Dance Music

Masked Theatre (Lakhon Khol)

Shadow Theatre (Nang Sbek)

Royal Palace of Phnom Penh

 

Links

Ken Kunthea's Dance Homepage

Youthful Optimism

Chamrouen Yin's Classical Cambodian Dance Page

Danse Celeste

Apsara Dance

Poetry In Motion

Classical Cambodian Dance

A Determined Survivor Revives Khmer Classical Dance

Classical Cambodian Court Dance

Sovannaphum Assoication

Sam Ang Sam's Khmer Music page


 

photographed by Sok Sothy

Classical Cambodian dance is comprised to two types of dances such as robam ('pure dance pieces') and roeung ('dance dramas'). Currently Classical Cambodian dance is currently composed of 60 robam and 40 roeung. Robam traditionally served as a source of entertainments, certain rituals such as robam boung soung ('dance to the heavenly deities and spirits') that would be perform to promote fertility, induce the rains, bring peace and prosperity to the kingdom Robam Chhoun Por ('blessed dance' or 'the best wish dance') would be performed to welcome and honour visiting head of state and to bless the nation.

In dance dramas, the actresses mime the actions as an offstage choir of male and female singers delivers the text to the accompaniment of the pin-peat orchestra. The stories that performed include episodes from the Reamker (Khmer version of the Indian epic Ramayana), Preah Chinnavong tale of Prince Chinnavong, Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, the battle between the water goddess and the storm spirit, the Javanese Panji cycle, Preah Sang the conch prince, Monora the half woman half bird and many other local legends. The typical tales focuses on the battle between good and evil and the struggle of the noble hero with a giants who are villains for the love of a woman. An episode from the Reamker that of great popularity is the story of Sovann Machha (the golden mermaid) who is courted by Hanuman, Preah Ream's (Prince Rama's) monkey general. Traditionally dancers were trained in the palace and performed when they were required by the king and commoners were not normally allowed to view these presentation. However times have changed and Classical Cambodian dance gone beyond the walls of the royal palace to the outside public and to the world.

 

 

Robam Chhun Por (The Blessed Dance or Best Wishes Dance)

Robam chhun Por (The Blessed Dance or Best Wishes Dance) usually this dance would be performed for visiting or important guests. The dancers would this dance in which they hold in their hands a metal goblet or what looks to be like a chalice. In the chalice or goblet is flower petals, during the climax of the dance they would throw the petals to the guests as a blessing to them and the country as well as the nation for peace and prosperity. Before a dance performance would begin at a concert or special ceremony this dance would be the first to be performed.
 

 

Roeung Reamker (Ramayana Dance Drama) is an epic tale about Preah Ream (Prince Rama) and how he was heir to his fathers throne. However Preah Ream's step-mother wanted her son to be next in line to the throne. Preah Ream was exiled to go and live in the forest for fourteen years with his wife Neang Seda (Sita) and his brother Preah Leak (Laksmana). Later on Neang Seda was abducted by Krong Reap (Ravana) king of the giants who lives on the island of Lanka. Preah Ream raises an army of monkeys aided by Hanuman and defeats Krong Reap in battle and was reunited with his beloved wife Neang Seda. Preah Ream unsure and about Neang Seda's fidelity made her take a few major tasks she was aided by Hanuman and eventually she passed. Yet still unsure he banished her from the kingdom. There she lived with an old hermit and bore two of Preah Ream's sons. Hearing the news he once again returned Neang Seda to live in the palace and he recognise Neang Seda as his wife and his two sons.

Roeung Reamker (Khmer version of the Ramayana) Preah Ream's monkey troops locked in battle with Krong Reap's Giants.

 

 

 

Robam Pream AKA Robam Buong Suong Neang (Praying to the Heavenly Goddess), photographed by Pich Tum Kravel

Robam Pream AKA:  Robam Buong Suong Neang "Praying to the Heavenly Goddess" and is also known by several other names. Robam Pream is a dance from antiquity, this dance was traditionally performed by the stars or the first dancers of the Royal Ballet (Classical Cambodian Court Dance). The dance is performed by female roles as the name Robam Buong Suong Neang suggests. It is one of the most important dance repertoires HRH Princess Bopha Devi has danced it many times. The most famous occasion was in the Throne Hall or Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichhay and she performed a bit of it, adding a part with candles. In His Majesty's movie "Adieu Mon Amour". The dance is holy and is performed to ask for the blessing for the whole king and peace for all. 

 

 

 

Robam Apsara (Celestial Nymphs Dance)

Robam Apsara (Celestial Nymphs Dance) this dance represents Khmer art in it's fullest form. The apsaras became a predominant feature of Angkorean art during the Khmer civilisation in the early 9th century that continued until the 15th century A.D. Apsaras were carved in their thousands on temple walls and bas-reliefs in and around Angkor. The best examples are from Angkor Wat where the seductive nymphs have that divine smile and dressed in their ancient regalia's.

The apsaras according to legend were born from the Churning of the Milk Sea the Hindu version of creation and said to be the wives of divine musicians. While another legend tells of the union between an old hermit named Kampu and an Apsara by the name of Mera, who is dressed in white representing purity help founded the kingdom of Kampu-Mera or Kampuchea (Cambodia). In Apsara Mera's hands and the hands of her maids they hold golden flowers that represents peace to all mankind dancing in the celestial garden.

 

 

 

Robam Sovann Machha (Dance of the Golden Mermaid)

Robam Sovanna Machha (Dance of the Golden Mermaid) is an excerpt from the Reamker in this episode Hanuman the monkey general was ordered to build a large stone bridge across the sea to reach Langka Island where Preah Ream's wife Neang Seda was held captive by Krong Reap (Ravana). During the construction of the bridge, the army of monkeys kept throwing large boulders and stones into the sea to form a pathway. However their construction was hindered as they monkey's kept throwing the boulders into the sea and the fish kept taking the stones away. Hanuman was told to investigate the matter, the monkey general dived into the sea floor to see what was stopping the army from completing the bridge. There in the sea floor he saw Sovann Machha (Golden Mermaid) and her minions. He was so enthralled by her beauty that he fell in love with her. Hanuman's cheeky gestures and flirtation gave way to courtship.

 One final request was made to Sovann Machha and that is to stop her minions from taking away the stones and boulders in their constructions of the bridge because Sovann Machha said the bridge was build in the path of her kingdom's feeding grounds. An agreement was made that Hanuman will let the feeding ground not be obstructed by the bridge so the matter was settled. Hanuman eventually returned to the surface and they managed to get across to Langka Island to rescue Neang Seda. This is a very popular dance and is often performed... showing the court gestures and the cheeky nature of the monkey and the gracefulness of the mermaid. The role of the monkey is always played by a man while the mermaid is played by a woman.

 

 

Robam Ream Leaksmi neng Chupa Leaksmi (Rama Laksmi and Chupa Laksmi Dance) is a dance that is strictly performed by young children. This dance is an extract from the Reamker where Preah Ream's (Prince Rama) two son ride on Preah Ream's white horse which is performed by a male dancer. The story begins when Ream Leak and Chupa Leak goes into the forest to test their powers. What the twins did was fire an arrow using a large tree known as doarm rang. As the twins shot their arrows it destroyed the trees and caused a large roar which sent shockwaves to Preah Ream. Worried and fearing that there could be another army of giants that lay un-defeated Preah Ream dispatched Hanuman and a white horse and ordered that anyone caught with the horse would receive the death penalty. Hanuman later sees the twins taking turns ridding the horse. Then the makes an assault on them. 

Robam Ream Leaksmi neng Chupa Leaksmi ( Rama Laksmi and Chupa Laksmi Dance)

The twins go into battle against Hanuman, in the battled that followed Hanuman was defeated by the twins and was beaten senseless. After beating the monkey general senseless they tied him up and caste a spell on Hanuman which no one could take off. Hanuman woken from the beatings by the twins quickly returned to the royal palace to ask for help. None of Preah Ream's brothers could help in taking off the spell. Only Preah Ream could take off the spell himself. 

 

 

Roeung Preah Chinnavong ( Prince Chinnavong Dance Drama)

Roeung Preah Chinnavong (Prince Chinnavong Dance Drama) is about Preah (Prince) Chinnavong who has a got a mission from his guru to recuperate either a scarf or a ring of the princess's maid. There is also the battle between good and evil with him going into battle against giants which is typical of Khmer Court Dance. The most beautiful part of the dance drama as it unfolds is when the princess and her maids were walking in the garden. Preah Chinnavong having spied on them for a moment, seduced quite directly the first maid. He falls in love with her and promises to marry her To prove his love he gives her a rare flower, but she doesn't believe him.

While he goes to find more flowers, she leaves, weeping and distraught, he vows to search for her and again promises to make her his wife. This is just one of the typical dance dramas and is quite popular in Khmer literature. Told over time and time again as well as being performed for centuries. Yet this dance is still a spectacle to watch as the traditional courting gestures are represented in it's finest movements.

 

Robam Mekar (The Serpent Dance) in which Moni Mekhala, the goddess of water and of the seas in this dance. Mekar is a name of a mythical sea creature, one who represents the fertility of bodies of water. Robam Mekar dance opens with a solo by a divine prince, Vorachhun. (Vorachhun, a companion of Moni Mekhala, is also a character in the long version of the Moni Mekhala-Ream Eyso story which is also performed in a dance known as roeung Moni Mekhala). The second part of the dance features Moni Mekhala and an entourage of dancers manipulating fans in imitation of the scales of a mekar as they move in winding patterns, just as that animal might.

 

Robam Mekar (Dance of the Serpents)

 

 

Roeung Moni Mekhala neng Ream Eyso AKA Roeung Moni Mekhala ( Moni Mekhala & Ream Eyso AKA Moni Mekhala Dance Drama), photographed by Pich Tum Kravel

Roeung Moni Mekhala (Moni Mekhala Dance Drama) this dance drama is about Moni Mekhala the water goddess and Ream Eyso the storm spirit. According to legend Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala's studied magic that was taught by a powerful guru (teacher) who was an old hermit. One day the guru new that their time had come to see how devoted are the student towards their guru. He gave them a task to fulfill. The task was anyone who could collect a cup full of dew would receive their magical weapon or talisman. Moni Mekhala and bright and intelligent student placed a handkerchief on the ground over night and in the morning there was morning dew that was absorbed by the handkerchief. Moni Mekhala squeezed out the dew into a cup. She went forward to the kru and presented him with a cup full of morning dew.  With his magic he created a magical crystal ball. She took the ball and flew off to her palace.

Meanwhile Ream Eyso was intelligent and was devoted to his guru as well. His method was walking around collecting the dew from leaves off trees to fill his cup. When it was full he went and presented the cup of dew to the guru. The teacher presented him with a magical axe. He was disappointed with weapon since he wanted the magical crystal ball. However the guru said that the axe suited him because the crystal ball would not be fit for a giant. Having received his gift he took off into the heavens to look for Moni Mekhala and try and get the magical crystal ball from her no matter what.  

Ream Esyo confronts Moni Mekhala and tries flattery but she will have none of that. Ream Eyso declares war on Moni Mekhala, so the battle began. Moni Mekhala with her precision blinded Ream Eyso making his attacks very clumsily. Ream Eyso in a fit of rage produces is magical battle axe. He clumsily aims and throws his battle axe always missing her by a great shot. 

One says every time you hear thunder in the heavens it's because Ream Eyso's battle axe clatters as it hits Moni Mekhala's crystal ball because us mortals are only allowed to see thunder and rain while the battle is taking place in the heaven. In the battle he always looses and vowed for revenge. This dance is also performed to induce the rain when the land is dry and the people will pray for rain.

 

 

 

Robam Monorsanchettana (Sentimental Expression Dance) performed by Ken Kunthea and photographed by Eric Vander Borght

Robam Monorsanchettana (Sentimental Expression Dance) is a more recent creation choreographed by the late Dance Master Chea Samy in the 1980s. The piece was originally created to provide dance students with a wide range of expressions and sentiments. It has also been performed by professional dancers as an addition to their repertoire of court dances. Theme depicts courting actions and, at its close, the sadness brought about by the separation of two lovers.

 

 

 

Robam Plett (The Fan Dance), photographed by Frank Nolot

Robam Plett (The Fan Dance) was inspired by a very old dance. Originally this dance was performed with bunches of flowers instead of fans. Robam Plett was however reshaped in the 1950s created in order to glorify the king for all the glory and grace in governing his kingdom (Cambodia).  As the dance repertoires were slow and repetitive, it is one of the first dances taught to newly trained dancers. Sometimes people confused Robam Plett with Robam Mekar, however there is no direct link between the two dances. Robam Plett is one of the most often performed dances at the Chhom Khar Mon Palace in the 1960s.

 

 

 

Robam Tep Monorom (The Dance of Heavenly Gods and Goddesses for Happiness), photographed by Pich Tum Kravel

Robam Tep Monorom (The Dance of Heavenly Gods and Goddesses for Happiness) is a dance depicting Gods and Goddesses dressed in the finest regalia having a wonderful time dancing or performing in heaven. Robam Tep Monorom is a very typical dance because it shows the dance (courting) gestures between the gods and goddesses in heaven. This dance repertoire is found through most classical court dance gestures in courting scenes where the hero meets his lover and they display the traditional affections that is often expressed in the Khmer style of love. The costumes also reflect the what the Khmer kings and queens would have worn. A wonderful spectacle to watch as well as the most often performed dance.

 

Special Thanks to Ravi Sisowath for some information regarding some of the court dances and court dance drama.

Copyright of Kean Chhay Chang 22/09/2001