Time travelling through ballet

The Cambodian Royal Ballet practises yesterday for three upcoming performances this weekend.
The Cambodian Royal Ballet practises yesterday for three upcoming performances this weekend. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Audiences attending any of the three performances of the Cambodian Royal Ballet’s show Memories in Motion today and on Saturday will be treated to a time-travelling tour of Khmer classical dance.

“Firstly it will be the dance of the Prince Sisowath period, second is the period of Samdech [Queen Sisowath] Kossamak, and third is the period of prince [Norodom] Sihanouk,” says ballet master Voan Savay, a former dancer and long-time teacher for the Royal Ballet.

The Sisowath period, dating back to the early 20th century, is the most distinct form, as a spectator can clearly see from the movements, costumes and makeup, Savay explains.

“The face [of the dancer] is all white and there’s no smiling. We dance as if we had a mask on,” she says of the older style of royal court dancing.

“The costumes are longer . . . and with more sombre colours, and body movements are supple but punctuated,” she says, adding that there is also no difference between the male and female hand movements.

The production is on a massive scale, with a team of 160 people, including over 70 male and female dancers on stage, over the course of multiple scenes. A handful of them, like dancer Vankosaun Serei, will have to undergo labourious changes of costume.

After performing as the “princess of the oceans” in a Sisowath-era interpretation of the Moni Mekhala dance – in which she fights the axe-wielding giant Ream Eyso – Serei will have to transform herself backstage into a Sihanouk-era Apsara.

“The white powder is very thick to wash off,” she says, adding that the dancers getting changed will need “the help of maybe six or seven make-up artists”.

See behind the scenes as the Cambodian Royal Ballet prepare for their debut in Hong Kong:

Under Queen Kossamak, the grandmother and teacher of Royal Ballet Director Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, the style at the court underwent a “khmerisation”, according to the princess.

“There was, let’s say, exchanges between Cambodia and Thailand, so my grandmother had the idea of khmerising entirely the influence,” she says.

As a result, by the time Buppha Devi was learning, the Sisowath-period style was no longer being taught. A century later, that style had to be reconstructed from old photos and archival footage collected by the French.

What has not changed over the course of the century is the music, though, and from the Kossamak and Sihanouk period, the dances and costumes are essentially the same, says costume designer Sylvain Lim.

What did change was the role and audience of classical dance, and with that, aspects of its choreography. As a result of the dance leaving the Royal Court and being used for state functions and ceremonies, the Royal Ballet had to modernise and adapt itself to each performance.

“It had to be adapted for those who may not be used to seeing [the Royal Ballet],” Lim says, noting that the Sihanouk period was marked by the ballet performing for more than just a palace audience.

For the first time, he noted, the public suddenly could see the performances with its own eyes – and will again this weekend.

Memories in Motion will be on at Chaktomuk today at 6:30pm and again on Saturday at 3:30pm and 6:30pm. Tickets can be purchased at the Bophana Center, the French Institute, Khema Restaurant or online here.