The Legend of Apsara Mera narrates the founding of the Khmer kingdom by two mythical figures, Prince Kambu and the nymph Apsara Mera. The first part outlined the birth of apsaras (nymphs), these beautiful celestial dancers who are associated with the wonder that emerged from the Churning of the Sea of Milk carried out by giants and gods. The second part depicts the queen of the apsaras, who descended to earth to embody Apsara Mera, the daughter of the naga (serpent/dragon) king, lord of the water and the land. From her union with the foreign Prince Kambu came the Kingdom of Cambodia and thus the Khmer ethnic group.
Divided into two acts, the dance-drama was rich in its variety of scenic effects, which enacted traditional pieces of ballets shortened and rearranged and reworked to fit the story. Act 1 of The Legend of Apsara Mera is divided into four episodes and began with the myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The first episode depicts the eternal battle between gods and giants incarnated by four pairs of dancers— all dressed like figures in the bas-reliefs of Angkor. This episode was followed by a two-man combat between Asura (Giant) and Hanuman (Monkey). The mix of traditions, the Asura from lokhon khol (a village dance tradtion that traditionally does only Ramayana stories) and one from court dance (Hanuman), was extremely innovative and features a succesion of athletic and rapid gestures during the combat.
The second episode narrates the god Vishnu standing on his vehicle, the turtle that supports the world. In order to represent the god with his numerous hands, two dancers were standing behind the main role, moving their hands slowly up and down, each hand holding an arm. The illusion worked well and gave a lively picture of the god. To stop the fighting, the god Vishnu suggested to both camps (giants represented by Asura and gods represented by Hanuman) to churn the Sea of Milk in order to get the elixir of immortality, amrita, which would give supremacy for whoever possessed it. Thus, gods on the right side and giants on the left side started to churn the sea. The scene was superbly lit with dancers lined up in one row, giants facing gods. Their legs firmly anchored into the ground, they slightly leaned their bodies from left to right miming the gestures of churning accompanied by a deep melancholic sound made by the buffalo horn instument. This direct visual reference to Angkor's east gallery was an exciting instance of sculpture coming to life that would be recognized by all who have visited that World Heritage site. The Churning of the Sea of Milk is a mytholgical process whereby all good things, including dance and musical arts, are generated by the joint effort of the opposite forces (demons and gods), and it served here, perhaps, as a metaphor of how peace and concord might lead to positive developments in cosmic and human existences.
The third episode depicts the jewels that poured out of the sea after a thousand years of churning. While these jewels were projected images on a screen at Salle Pleyel in 2010, at BAM in 2013 they were replaced by traditional Khmer large leather puppets (sbek thom, whose images again reflect the visuals on temple walls) manipulated by three dancers behind a scrim. This change made this scene even more effective. Among these jewels emerged the white elephant, the eternel tree, the white horse, and, eventually, the elixir of immortality, amrita, held by the god Vishnu. But next appeared the giant Asura, who managed to steal it. The goddess Mohini was thereupon called upon by Vishnu, who gave her a magic crystal ball to fight against the giant to get the elixir of immortality back. The fourth episode narrates the combat between the goddess Mohini and the giant Asura. Mohini provoked Asura into combat, which ended to her advantage. She threw her magic crystal ball before Asura's face, which blinded him. She could then get the elixir of immortality back. The scene was an adaptation of the ballet Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso and allowed the interpolation of the important idea of the traditional clash of Moni Mekhala (a goddess associated with lightning) and Ream Eyeso (the god of thunder), who appear in a venerable dance-drama Buong Song, a performance traditionally associated with palace dancer to induce rain and fertility. Interpolating parts of this traditional choreography into the Churning of the Sea of Milk narrative was a choice that would be evocative for viewers aware of the origins.
The fourth episode narrates the combat between the goddess Mohini and the giant Asura. Mohini provoked Asura into combat, which ended to her advantage. She threw her magic crystal ball before Asura’s face, which blinded him. She could then get the elixir of immortality back. The scene was an adaptation of the ballet Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso and allowed the interpolation of the important idea of the traditional clash of Moni Mekhala (a goddess associated with lightning) and Ream Eyeso (the god of thunder), who appear in a venerable dance-drama Buong Song, a performance traditionally associated with palace dancer to induce rain and fertility. Interpolating parts of this traditional choreography into the Churning of the Sea of Milk narrative was a choice that would be evocative for viewers aware of the origins.
Act 2 was divided into five episodes, where the apsaras (celestial nymphs) dominated, creating a more delicate, intimiate atmosphere. Here we moved away from the story of cosmic creation and discord toward a story of how the Khmer nation originated.
The first episode superbly depicted the nymph Apsara Mera, the daughter of the king of nagas. This princess of apsaras emerged slowly from blackness in the middle of the darkened stage and moved softly to the center, where light revealed her radiant beauty. Apsara Mera was crowned in a newly designed headdress representing a naga or serpent head—it seemed to be directly carved out from the bas-reliefs of Angkor. She was dressed in a skin-colored corset and a white skirt, literally radiating light through the glittering ornaments on her torso, wrists, and ankles. The lovely Meng Chan Chara, who danced Apsara Mera, was almost sublime. Her dance rhythm, seen in a subtle movement up and down made by her supporting knee and by an internal flow of her shoulder blades, gave the impression of a reptile’s undulations. The suave male voice of singer Ek Sidé contributed to the opening of this serene and graceful solo dance. Then, six women as her ladies-in-waiting framed Meng Chan Chara in a lovely choreography celebrating the beauty of the nature. The dance ended with the seven apsaras gliding softly to the back of the stage and facing the audience: they took a posture just like apsaras in the temples of Angkor Wat. They resembled living goddesses more than mere mortals.
The middle scenes showed the first encounter of apsaras with the human world. The second episode depicted Prince Kambu (danced by Chen Chansoda), who left his realm along with an army and set sail. He approached an island named Kok Thlok (the ancient name of Cambodia) and decided to settle there. In order to represent a boat, two male dancers—one in the front and the second in the back—mimed the movement of the boat on the sea. The third episode again showed Apsara Mera, this time performed by another dancer, Chap Chamroeunmina, as she prayed to the gods for the sake of her kingdom. The scene allowed us to admire the ballet Chhouy Chhay (Gracious Walk), which has rarely been presented in a tour abroad. The fourth scene staged Prince Kambu courting the nymph Apsara Mera. The scene conformed to the prescribed codes of court dance, eye contact followed by hand contact before the nymph fell in love with her suitor.
Then followed the final episode, the celebration of the union of Kambu and Mera, the founders of the kingdom of Kok Thlok/Cambodia. Eight pairs of deities framed the couple, who glided slowly to the front row. The group executed a complex choerography with perfect synchronization. The stage suddenly became a radiant heaven where deities in shimmering embroidered costumes and regal headressess danced gracefully around the mythical couple. The birth of the nation was evoked in this successful choreography by Princess Buppha Devi to celebrate the successful rebirth of civil society that has taken place in the country. The arts of music and dance, which mythologically were considered treasures coming from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, were celebrated in this dance-drama as part of the solution to the devastating history that the country has managed to surmount.