Made-for-TV Royal Ballet competition will air by year’s end

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Dance master Soth Somaly will be one of the judges. She often performs as the villanous ‘neay rong yeak’. UYFC SVAY RIENG

A new televised Khmer classical dance competition called Lakhon Khmer will begin broadcasting its first season this year. The competition was organised by the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia in Svay Rieng province (UYFC) with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and Bayon TV.

Khmer Classical Dance, officially referred to as the Royal Ballet, was placed on the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List on November 7, 2003.

In order to apply for the competition, a team of dancers simply fills out a form and provides an application fee of 10,000 riel ($2.50) and submits it along with their audition video of at least five minutes in length to the UYFC Svay Rieng chapter Facebook page or Telegram account.

Applications and audition videos will be accepted from July 25 until September 8 and the contest will be held in December.

This competition provides an opportunity for the public to participate by making videos of themselves performing the classical Khmer dances and submitting them to the show. Those chosen as contestants will get the opportunity to meet the judges and get feedback from them as well as receive lessons from classical dance masters with years of experience.

The contestants will meet with the four judges – all of whom are top classical dancers and masters with many years of experience in the field.

In Khmer Classical Dance, the characters are divided between “neay rong”, or male characters, and “neang”, or female characters. Those two categories are then sub-divided into various types, some of them human roles like mother, father, mistress or soldier and others mythological roles like the avian Garuda or the ape-like Hanuman.

The judges this year are Master Proeung Chheang, who often performs as “neay rong sva”, or ape-like male characters such as Hanuman; Master Pen Sokhuon, known for her performances as “neay rong ek” or the lead male character; Master Soth Somaly who performs as the villainous “neay rong yeak”, also known in Sanskrit as Rakshasa; and Master Sam Sathya who is renowned for her performances as “neang ek”, or the female lead character.

Chhi Kolbotra, 37, is the leader of the team from UYFC organising Lakhon Khmer season one.

“The four judges are not just a neutral committee giving out scores, but they are also directly going to be training those contestants too. It is a special opportunity for them to gain experience and learn skills from these four masters,” he said.

“Each team must have five members and they cannot change their members or replace any of them with other people. The contestants are required to make a five-minute video of any Khmer Classical Dance performance in full costumes according to their character and in the traditional style. The competition is open to the public and all-ages are welcome to audition including younger children,” Kolbotra said.

Candidates from all 25 capital and provinces who participate in Lakhon Khmer season one will not only enjoy the thrill of competing on television, they will also be helping to promote and preserve Khmer Classical Dance and Cambodian cultural heritage and traditions, according to Kolbotra.

“Organising Lakhon Khmer season one is to create consciousness among the youth to have a spirit of love and support for traditional Khmer arts and culture. It is to maintain and preserve our ancient cultural heritage and increase the popularity of this traditional art form. Another purpose is to create a relationship between the old and new generations of artists so they can pass along their skills.

“The artists become well-known to the public from these competitions. For example, contests with musicians always help them to get hired by Cambodians in their own communities to perform during events, and we consider this to be a similar way of promoting and marketing Khmer dancers,” he said.

For season one, the programme will select three teams as finalists who will receive an award of 24 million riel divided between them. The first place team will get 12 million riel, second place will get eight million riel and third place will get four million riel.

Dance is an art form that expresses Cambodia’s national identity in various forms according to the Kingdom’s regions. In general, Cambodian dance is divided into Khmer Classical Dance or Royal Ballet, Khmer traditional dance, Khmer folk dance, ethnic dances from Cambodian groups other than Khmer and contemporary dance.

Khmer Classical Dance or Royal Ballet was traditionally a noble ritual performed only for the royal family or high-ranking officials in the civil service and it depicts ancient myths and interactions with the gods. Its performances include dancers dressed in elaborate costumes ornamented and adorned with jewels and the music was performed by the royal orchestra.

In mid-20th century, the dances were introduced to the general public and became widely celebrated as the height of Khmer culture as they became part of the celebrations during public events, holidays and later were performed for tourists visiting Cambodia.