Special Exhibition
‘Royal Ballet of Cambodia’
07 March – 20 April 2019
National Museum of Cambodia

    This photographic exhibition of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia shows examples from Her Royal Princess Buppha Devi's creation of a choreography gathering three periods of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

    The first part shows dances from the reign of His Majesty King Sisowath (1840-1927), with two dances "Robam Buong Suong" (wishing dance), a dance to wish the nation happiness and prosperity. Then comes an extract of the Legend of "Preah Chennavong", the story of a prince whose sword is stolen by a King of the Giants.

    The second part brings us to the period of Her Majesty Queen Kossamak (1904-1975). The dancers will perform "The Abduction of Sita".

    The abduction of Preah Neang Seda (Sita) by Krung Reap (Ravana) in the guise of a hermit, is one of the major portions of the Reamker (Ramayana). Krung Reap, King of the Giants, with 10 heads, watches Preach Neang Seda in the forest and falls in love with her. Maricha, the golden deer tempts Preah Ream (Rama) and Preah Leak (Lakshmana) away from Preah Neang Seda. Before Preah Leak leaves, he draws a circle around her with his arrow and tells Preah Neang Seda not to step out of the circle.
    Krung Reap disguises himself as an old hermit and asks Preah Neang Seda to come to him. Preah Neang Seda finally steps out of the circle. The hermit becomes Krung Reap who and catches the princess in his arms and flies to his kingdom Lanka.
    Hanuman is sent by Preah Ream to find Preah Neang Seda. Hanuman shows the ring bearing the name and seal of Preah Ream to her.

    Interwoven is a story of Lakhon Khol, the all male masked dancers,"Lakhon Khol - the Final Battle".
    Preah Ream and Preah Leak are joined by Hanuman and his monkey armies who build a bridge to reach the kingdom of Lanka where Preah Neang Seda is prisoned.
    Preah Ream and Krung Reap, fight each other with magic weapons. Neither Preah Ream nor Krung Reap has the upper hand. Piphek the astrologist must find out Krung Reap’s secret. With his sharp arrows, Preah Ream shoots Krung Reap who dies after taking that strike. Preah Ream can finally reunite with his wife, Preah Neang Seda.

    The third part brings us to the period of His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk (1922–2012), with two dances: "The Apsara Dance" and "Robam Tep Monorom".
    The Ballet of Apsaras has been created by Queen Kossamak in the mid 1960s. Apsaras are characters of the famous Mahabarata epic poem in which they were born from the churning of the sea of milk. Their extraordinary costumes are copied from those of the Angkor bas-reliefs. Since the last decade, the ballet has been revisited by Princess Buppha Devi with new headdresses and costumes.

Robam Tep Monorom
    The ballet is created in the mid-1960s and depicts the gracious gods and goddesses that live in the paradise of the god Indra. It has had such a success that it is usually danced to close a performance to wish people and nation happiness and prosperity.

The Ballet

The ballerinas
    The young Royal Ballet ballerinas start their training very young at 9 or 10 years old at the Secondary School of Fine Arts. After having passed very challenging and difficult exams, the dancers join the Royal University of Fine Arts. This entrance exam is based on the ballerinas’ flexibility, delicacy, style, gestures, but also on their morphology and on certain beauty aspects which will influence on which character of the Ballet they will dance.

Preparation of the dancers
    Traditionally, women would dance both female and male characters. Since the reign of Queen Kossamak, men can now perform the role of Nearong (male character) and even Neang (female character). Costumes are cut fit to the body and are tightly and closely sewed on the dancer a few hours before the performance. Each folding of the sampot charabab is carefully and meticulously done by the dance teachers or the costume designers.

    During the Royal Ballet preparation, a makeup specialist meticulously applies a thick and bright white powder on the dancers’ faces. This special makeup was used more than a century ago, and has been reintroduced by Princess Buppha Devi for the Robam Boung Soung dance. At that time, a white face was a symbol of beauty and elegance. The dancers’ faces reminds them of the purity of the moon and strengthen their divine character.

    There are four main characters categories in the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Neang (female characters) wear a crown, a sampot tied to the waist by a golden belt, and a shawl embellished with delicate embroideries. Nearong (male characters) have a crown, a sampot tied differently than the women’s and a shoulder pad shirt. Yeak (demons or giants) wear a mask as well as Sva (monkeys), who also wear a shirt without shoulder pads and a small tail made of fabric.

The gestures
    There are approximately 1000 known gestures in the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, however only 300 are taught and performed. The dancers express their feelings through these dances and mime stories sang by a choir on a music played by the Pin Peat orchestra. Special attention is given to the gestures’ grace and sensitivity and are performed in a very precise and codified way according to ancestral rules. However, each and every dancer has her own style and expresses in a very special and unique way the character which she embodies.

The Pin Peat Orchestra
    Pin Peat is a music ensemble that accompanied court dance, male mask dance theater, shadow puppet, and religious ceremonies.

Princess Norodom Buppha Devi
    Princess Norodom Buppha Devi is the elder daughter of the deceased King Sihanouk. Raised by her grand-mother, Queen Kossomak, the patroness of the royal dance troupe, she had been learning court dance since her young age. Her grandmother, chose her to become a dancer early in her life. At the age of 15, she became the premiere dancer of the Royal Ballet. She was promoted lead dancer in the 1960s. Since her return to Cambodia in 1991, she has been looking after the destiny of the Royal Ballet troupe. She was appointed Minister of Culture and Fine Arts from 1999-2003. During her mandate, she succeeded to have the royal ballet inscribed as Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (UNESCO). In the last decade, she has been working closely with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to rejuvenate former dance-dramas, such as Preach Chinavong, Enao Bossaba, Shadows and Lights, Reamker (Ramayana), Apsara Mera, and lastly Metamorphoses.