Khmer ballet documentary debuts April 1
A new documentary, The Perfect Motion, or Tep Hattha in Khmer, will premiere to the public on April 1.
The documentary film follows two intertwined storylines: the creation of a show called Metamorphosis by the late Princess Norodom Buppha Devi (her very last production) and the history of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, which dates back to 1906.
The powerful documentary will screen at cinemas across the length and breadth of the Kingdom, with both Khmer and English subtitles, meaning it will be perfectly accessible to both local and international lovers of the arts.
Prince SisowathTesso, former private secretary to the princess and now director of the Princess Buppha Devi Dance School, had this to say about her old mistress.
“I remembered that she said she wanted young generations to know about Khmer culture. She always said what she knew and she learned, she wanted to preserve and pass on to the young generations, both through herself and other teachers.”
The movie captures the essence of this beautiful art form with stunning visuals and captivating storytelling, according to a press release.
Young dancers and old masters share powerful testimonies about how they devoted their lives to perfecting their craft and ensuring that it survives into future generations, despite the tragedies of Cambodian history.
Viewers will gain an understanding of how the ballet has shaped Cambodian culture and identity over time, through the five-year-journey of production.
“The Perfect Motion has been a five-year-long extraordinary journey. From concept to script and from casting to production, it’s been an incredible saga—almost as exciting and unpredictable as the story that plays out in the film itself,” said Xavier de Lauzanne, director of the film.
Lauzanne worked with Pierre Kogan, an art lover and film maker who has lived in Cambodia for eight years, to produce the project.
“We wanted to produce a film that captures both the beauty of Cambodian classical dance and the incredible drama of its recent history,” said Lauzanne.
“It’s important to pay tribute to the artists who in the face of war, destruction and complete destitution found the courage to teach and revive their art, turning it into a source of hope, resilience and reconstruction,” he added.
Kogan said most Cambodian people have heard about apsara dances and can maybe perform a simple gesture or two, but not many have actually attended a Royal Ballet performance. They are not necessarily aware that it attracts big crowds in theatres abroad.
“We hope that The Perfect Motion will make Cambodians feel even prouder of their culture and that it will further the ballet’s fame around the world,” he added.
The Royal Ballet of Cambodia has captivated audiences for centuries with its special and subtle expressions.
From 1906 to the present day, from famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s sketches to the final creation of Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, King Norodom Sihanouk’s eldest daughter and the Ballet’s former leading dancer, the Royal Ballet has survived and upheld its unique artistic language.
In 2008, it was inscribed on the UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
To preserve and remember the work of Princess Buppha Devi, Prince Sisowath Tesso approached Lauzanne after the success of Les Pépites (Little Gems), a documentary film shot mainly in Cambodia, to work on The Perfect Motion.
Lauzanne suggested that the movie should not only tell the story of the princess but also explore the history of the Royal Ballet and the many exchanges between Western and Cambodian culture that have helped preserve it. This was how the film was born.
“Queen Kossamak, the mother of King Sihanouk was a revered and inspiring figure. She changed the face and the fate of the Royal Ballet,” said the press release.
“During the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, he saw the downward profile of the Royal Ballet. Heand his mother decided to contribute funding for the troupe, and participate in its reconstruction,” said Suppya Nut, an expert on the ballet.
She said the queen deeply loved both tradition and modernity, so she insisted that dancers perform without white make-up on their faces to allow them to show their expressions.
“In the 1960s, she felt that certain roles, for example the monkey’s, were very tired for women, so she decided to have men dance instead,” she says.
Master Proeung Chhieng, one of the most talented dancers of his generation and a survivor, dedicated the rest of his life to the preservation of Cambodian performing arts’ traditions. Now he is a professor at Royal University of Fine Arts.
While performing as a monkey in 1971, Chhieng became a sensation.
“We performed at the Kennedy Centre for US President Nixon and his first lady. Journalists published articles, saying that President had been affected and impressed by the Royal Ballet. He forgot to drop bombs on Cambodia. This is the power of ballet,” said Chhieng.
He said that teaching the younger generation is very important because when he was young, his ancestors passed on this legacy from their previous ancestors to him. Now he is older and wants to take his turn, because he believes that this traditional Khmer dance represents the identity and soul of the Khmer nation.
From her rise to stardom as prima ballerina to survival in a refugee camp by the Thai border, Voan Savay carried the ancient art of Khmer classical dance and its teaching with her.
“After the Khmer Rouge, I was deeply traumatised. I decided to flee to another country, the US, Australia, France, wherever. All I wanted was to leave. I was so scared of the Khmer Rouge. But when I reached the border, I changed my mind. I could not abandon the country,” she said.
“Just another step and I would have left for good. Instead, I decided to settle at the border, gather the children and teach dance. I can die and be reborn, but the art form cannot die,” she added.
Serei Van Kosaun is one of the stars of The Perfect Motion and plays the female lead in the show created by the late princess.
Kosaun, who works for the Royal University of Fine Arts, said she loves traditional dance. When she hears the music, it makes her feel excited and despite being shy, all she wants to do is dance.
“If Princess Norodom Buppha Devi did not trust me, I would not have what I have today,” she added.
Sok Nalys play the male lead. She said that transmitting the classical expression of Khmer culture is of the utmost importance.
“As long as Cambodia wishes to promote Khmer classical dance to the world as an art form and beautiful identity, the value of passing on knowledge to the next generation remains paramount,” she added.
On March 26, The Perfect Motion will premiere at Chaktomuk Theatre, one of the most iconic cultural landmarks in Phnom Penh, with His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni and Her Majesty Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk in attendance.
“This is of course a great honour for all of the people involved in this production and it shows the significance of the movie,” said the press release.
“I love this movie. It shows the love that so many people had for Khmer classical dance, and the way they dedicated their lives to preserving it for the next generations,” added Prince Sisowath Tesso, who appears in the film.
Chhieng said that watching The Perfect Motion left him with feelings of sadness and happiness, as so many of the people in the film have passed on, while others continue the work of preserving the art of Khmer ballet.
“In particularly, I mourn the loss of Princess Buppha Devi. She made us remember the dance. Even though she could not stay with us anymore, her pictures show that she can be with us forever,” he added.
In partnership with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, an educational kit is in the making (in Khmer, English and French) to facilitate the use of the movie in a school context.
“This is going to be the first time that such a tool is developed in Cambodia. It will contain a presentation of the movie, including the historic context, and it will also feature numerous educational activities designed for different school levels,” said the press release.