The fine–boned young princess, clad in silk and glittering jewels, performed beneath the stars on the open pavilion within the palace walls, accompanied by the Royal dance troupe and the “pinpeat” orchestra: Gongs, drums, xylophones, horns and stringed instruments. Selected by her grandmother, Queen Sisowath Monivong Kossomak Neary Rath Vattana, to become a dancer when she was only a baby. She toured the world as the “white Apsara” or principal dancer of the classical Cambodian ballet – a stunningly graceful, 2000 year–old blend of sinuous hand gestures and sinuous body movements, all deep with meaning. Responsible for its rebirth, she became the symbol of classical Khmer dancing, dormant since the 15th Century, when the glory of Angkor faded and with it the Khmer cultural dominance of Southeast Asia. In reviving the classical dance, Queen Kossomak and Princess Buppha Devi brought the dance not only to the world but also –for the first time- to the Cambodian people. In the past, the classical dance was the Royal dance, performed only before Royalty to commemorate their dynastic ancestors and to honor the gods.
As in the old days, technical training is given in the morning and regular schooling takes place in the afternoon. Although now retired from professional dancing, today at age 53 Princess Buppha Devi continues to dazzle audiences through her work as director of the 300 dancers who belong to the modern Royal ballet. Today, Apsara-dancing performances are no longer relegated to the gods and kings. Performances can been seen at the major hotels, and at Chatomuk Theater near the Royal Palace. With the tinkling of xylophones and a euphony of gongs and drums, the Apsara dancers, dressed in their tightly fitted silk tunics embroidered in gold and silver, barefoot but with elaborate headdresses, and outstretched arms symbolizing the naga and glistening with jewelry, enter the stage to perform with incredible grace. Dancing holds great significance for the Khmer people and the government considers the Royal ballet in particular to be a national treasure. Princess Buppha Devi , along with the Ministry of Culture, helping to ensure that its traditions will flourish in the next century. As Proeung Chhieng firmly believes, “Dance is our national soul”.
A little more about one of my favorite experiences in Asia. If you ever find yourself in Cambodia, don’t miss this. You will not be disappointed. Your heart and your soul will thank you.