Cambodian Royal Ballet - Lakhaon Kbach Boran Dancing for the gods - Sovannahong

By John MacGregor

Published in "The Advisor", edition VI, 10-16 July 2008

The ballet is about a trying game of fate being played out upon a royal family. So, too, is the story of its long-awaited production.

Choreographing the ballet began in 1955 by King Sihanouk's mother, Queen Kossomak - who trained her granddaughter, Princess Buppha Devi, to perform the lead. Cambodia's turbulent modern history helped ensure the work was never completed.

For centuries the 'keeper' of Cambodian Classcal Dance was the Royal Ballet - which the French sculptor Auguste Rodin saw in Paris in 1906, observing: 'These Cambodian women have given us everything antiquity could have contained... There is only this and the Greeks.'

But that history has now come full circle - with Princess Buppha Devi herself, now 65, staging the first production of 'Sovannahong' half a century on.

That Cambodian Royal Ballet survived at all was a close-run thing. Proeung Chhieng, a distinguished advisor to the Princess (and in the Royal Ballet's golden age, one of its most important 'monkey dancers') painfully outlines how the two-millennia-old form reached the brink of extinction:

'The Royal Ballet had 300 masters, dancers and musicians before the Khmer Rouge,' he says. 'After them, we had around 30 dancers and musicians left, and 10 or 12 masters. Only around ten percent survived.'

The Khmer Rouge also destroyed the Royal Ballet's costumes and musical instruments.

'After 1979 we had to revive everything step by step,' Proeung Chhieng says. 'Some dancers started this in the Thai refugee camps. Others regrouped in France. Here in Cambodia, we found a few old instruments and costumes. In 1980 we re-opened the Fine Arts School, near the Royal Palace.'

Friday's audience of 600, in a packed Chaktomuk Conference Hall, seemed no less enthralled. 'It was definitely one of the better performances of Cambodian classical ballet,' says Swedish photographer Anders JirÄs (whose shots of the evening grace these pages).

Frenchman Alain Daniel, who saw performances of the Royal Ballet in the 1960s, said: 'You could see how happy the dancers were to be recognised for doing something important. And it is important - the ballet is one of the highest expressions of Khmer civilisation, comparable to Angkor. Only Angkor is static. No-one is building more temples there. This ballet is present and alive.'

'Sovannahong' tells of a princess who mutates into a man, in a desperate quest to bring her slain princely lover back to life. Princess Buppha Devi and her cast - students and teachers from Phnom Penh's Secondary School of Fine Arts - spared little effort to bring the production up to international standard.

The performance was produced by the Phnom Penh-based international NGO, Amrita Performing Arts, with financial backing from the Rockefeller Foundation.

'Our participation,' says Amrita's Fred Frumberg, 'allowed for extensive research, supported artists through a full rehearsal process, built new costumes, and presented last Friday's one public showing.'

Why only one performance?

'It's all we had budget for!' Frumberg says. 'This was only ever intended as a project geared towards creating new repertory. It was a collaborative effort between the Princess, a group of elder masters, and young performers.'

So what is the future of this ancient form?

Frumberg believes Amrita's usefulness to classical dance will lie in 'building more repertory, thus strengthening the form itself. And now that this work exists, it is up to us to find other donors to help present future public performances, unless the Ministry of Culture is able to do that, which is rare.

'Since the war,' Frumberg adds, 'the emphasis was more on revival and preservation of previously lost repertory. The Princess was not concerned with creating new repertory until she felt a healthy momentum had been achieved in reviving the old. This is the first time we have created a work that had only been started, but never actually finished.'

Proeung Chhieng, Princess Buppha Devi's dance advisor, says that the Princess is now looking to reconstitute another work, 'Inav Busba' - like 'Sovannahong' a legend concerning a prince and a princess.

'Our teachers are dying,' he says. 'We have to recreate everything before they leave us. So we are gathering that story together now. We have 22 or 23 of the 55 parts so far. In addition, each year we train about 60 students.'

'Few people understand the importance of this tradition to Cambodian civilisation,' says Alain Daniel. 'The girls work very hard. This classical dance takes six years to learn. But right now classical dance here doesn't even have its own stage, or any resources.

'The Cambodian people should realise they have a very good chance here to create a truly great company. These dancers are so good because they become the characters. They are not dancing for spectators - for tourists. They are dancing for the gods.'

July 10, 2008

Five minutes with HRH Princess Buppha Devi

Q: Did your grandmother, Queen Kossomak, have a particular 'vision' for the story - something she thought it was all about?
A: It was part of a larger mission to set to dance as many stories from Cambodian legend as possible.

Q: To you, does the story symbolise anything of relevance to present-day Cambodia?
A: Yes insofar as passing on the traditional dance heritage from my grandmother to the young generation of dancers.

Q: What prevented 'Sovannahong' being completed and presented in the 1950s?
A: Her Majesty The Queen worked on scenes of this work off and on throughout the years, but that ended with the coup in 1970 when the royal family was desposed.

Q: What does the production represent, to you? (i.e. getting the ballet staged, as opposed to the story itself.)
A: An opportunity to not only create fresh, new repertory, but to also bring unknown characters back into the repertory. The classical dance characters best known include the male role, female role, giant and monkey. In this work, we introduced the role of the giant transformed into a human which has not been performed on stage in over forty years.

For a zipped PDF of the magazine article click here (900 Kb).