It survived the Khmer Rouge and thrives anew, but the future holds more questions
It doesn’t matter to Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, director of the Cambodian Royal Ballet, if she’s performing in a rehearsal hall, the Royal Palace or on the international stage.
“For me it’s training,” she says. “In the palace, outside, in the forest or in the mountains, or in France or China – the stage is always the same to me.”
For the sake of the centuries-old ballet’s survival, she hopes her dancers share a similar passion, she says.
“Once I’m on the stage I become a dancer, quite simply a dancer.”
While Buppha Devi has not danced since 1991, she’s taken the lead in reviving the Royal Ballet, all but destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Prima ballerina Chap Chamroeun Tola warms up before the Cambodian Royal Ballet makes its Hong Kong debut. /The Phnom Penh Post
She’s taken the troupe to New York, France, China, India and across Southeast Asia. In fact the ballet seems to have a better footing overseas than at home, where the arts often take a back seat in public life.
For prima ballerina Chap Chamroeun Tola, 30, that’s a bittersweet reality. “There’s a stage for us outside of Cambodia more than inside,” she says.
Regardless, the ballet provides a unique opportunity for its dancers to see the world and be recognised at the very least for their lifetime commitment, with many starting as young as five or six years old under the princess’ tutelage.
Buppha Devi is “like a mother to me”, says Tola, who in 2010 danced a lead in “Apsara Mera”, one of the princess’ most celebrated compositions.
Tola prefers portraying battles in dance, such as fighting with a giant, to feigning romance opposite a prince character (always performed by a woman). “I was a tomboy when I was a kid,” she laughs.
The giant is one of four central characters in Khmer classical ballet, along with the male and female leads and a monkey. Scenes are drawn from folklore, myths and, most often, the Reamker – the Cambodian version of the Indian Hindu epic the Ramayana.
“Expressing love, that’s not really my type, but I have to do it,” Tola says.
Makeup artist Van Sak Som prepares Van Votey for the stage./The Phnom Penh Post
Buppha Devi had Tola and her partner playing the prince stare at each other until their awkwardness disappeared, she says. They had to remain motionless and do nothing more than smile until they began to feel love. “It’s a must that the dancers understand what they feel inside in order to show it through their gestures,” Buppha Devi explains.
Rehearsals are held at her apartment in Phnom Penh. The Secondary School of Fine Arts is too remote for convenience and, anyway, everyone feels more comfortable at her place. “It’s like a family,” the princess says.
For the company’s recent debut in Hong Kong, Khon “Mo” Chansithyka, 26, and his brother Khon “Nan” Chansina, 24, played the monkey and giant, respectively, in a sequence of a lakhon khol masked dance. It was only their second performance with the Royal Ballet and marked their international debut.
The day before the show, Proeung Chhieng, 67, the company’s technical director and a lakhon khol professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts, was giving them a last-minute master class in how to make their fight more compelling.
“We act, but it’s real,” Mo said. “When we’re fighting, we’re really trying to stop each other, and that energy has to come out of our hands.”
Out of an incoming class of 70 to 80 students at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, perhaps a 10th go on to the Royal University, of whom a handful are selected for the Royal Ballet.
“The other teachers tell us ‘do this, do that’, but the princess explains,” said 23-year-old Sok Nalys, who played the prince in Hong Kong opposite Tola. “She speaks gently to us and she makes us feel confident.”
Saun Serei performs at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. /The Phnom Penh Post
What’s more, Nalys says, she gives the dancers a certain “freedom” within the confines of classical dance because she pushes the boundaries of tradition. “She dares to change the things we did in the past.”
Chhieng was eight years old when he joined the ballet and only nine when he first danced abroad, in Egypt and Yugoslavia, accompanying state visits. Like the few other surviving masters of his generation in the princess’ entourage, he essentially grew up in the Royal Palace.
“In 1967 I became a dance teacher,” he says, “and after the coup d’etat in 1973 I joined Queen Kossamak in Peking [Beijing] to study there – she asked me if I wanted to study stage lighting in China.”
China’s Cultural Revolution interrupted those plans, so he transferred to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “The government there didn’t allow foreigners to study lighting, so I learned choreography instead,” Chhieng says.
He returned to Cambodia in 1979 and soon took up teaching in Phnom Penh, but it wasn’t until 1991, when King Norodom Sihanouk and Princess Norodom Buppha Devi returned for good, that he again became part of the reformed Royal Ballet.
“The former dancers who survived and our new dancers organised one night to welcome the king home, and that was the princess’ last dance,” he recalls.
Dancers commit their lives to the craft and are meagrely rewarded. Many quit along the way, some because of social pressures. They typically hold day jobs as civil servants.
But whereas the company formerly performed overseas on travels with the head of state, foreign tours are no longer sponsored by the state.
As dancers they’re paid about US$200 (Bt6,600) per month, plus anywhere from $30 to $70 per performance. As the princess notes, “It’s always difficult.”
“It’s complicated with the government,” says Tola of the lack of public financial support for the ballet. “Sometimes I have no words.
“When you want the arts to live, but not the dancers to live, then what’s wrong? We need a solution to protect artists.” For her part, she’s educating the public through Facebook, where she has 52,000 followers.
Buppha Devi is now in her mid-70s and the question is whether her successor – who will for the first time be someone from outside the royal family – will have the same level of dedication.
Buppha Devi’s maternal grandmother, Queen Sisowath Kossamak, is widely credited with restoring the ballet from a state of decay near the turn of the century, reinventing and readapting pieces.
“It was absolutely natural that I became one of the dancers because it’s always been the royal family that has managed it,” the princess says. She would start each day in the rehearsal rooms of the palace.
“It’s difficult to predict what the future will bring,” she says, but she’s optimistic.
When Buppha Devi could not dance during the Pol Pot regime, she taught children in the refugee camps on the Thai border “to give them a little bit of hope, or joie de vivre”.
“Surely, there will be someone. I will not live one hundred years!” she laughs.