Crowning Glory: Up-close Cambodian Royal Ballet performance is a visual treat

A modern business park is hardly the typical backdrop for a centuries-old art form born in the royal palaces of Cambodia. Until the end of March, however, a compact studio at Aquation on Koh Pich is the go-to destination for a series of unmissable performances of Robam Preah Reach Trop, Khmer classical dance once seen only at the court of Kings.

King Jayarvarman VII and Queen Indradevi (Photo courtesy of Princess Buppha Devi Dance School)

The Princess Buppha Devi Dance School is a unique academy flying the flag internationally for the Cambodian Royal Ballet. Since the popular dance shows at the National Museum were discontinued, the school is also the only venue in the capital where you can currently see regular performances of the dance form that UNESCO added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage — aspects of living heritage in need of safeguarding — in 2003.

The academy is named for the late Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a former prima ballerina and later Director of the Cambodian Royal Ballet. The daughter of the King Father Norodom Sihanouk, she toured abroad with the Royal Ballet during the 1960s and her talents were showcased in her father’s classic film, Apsara. Despite its ancient roots, Khmer classical dance was almost lost during the Khmer Rouge genocide that targeted dancers, musicians and other artists along with the educated and elite classes. The Princess is credited with its later revival together with a small number of surviving dancers, and of bringing on a new generation of skilled artists before her death in 2019.

Prince Sisowath Tesso with students (Photo courtesy of Princess Buppha Devi Dance School)

Characterized by its slow, graceful movements, exquisite hand gestures and elaborate costumes, the Royal Ballet is popularly associated with the Apsara dance thanks to the familiar depictions of these celestial dancers in the Angkor temples.  While it’s an iconic image, there’s much more to the Cambodian Royal Ballet and the apsara is just one of the many male and female characters represented in the dances, which traditionally tell religious and mythological stories.

One of the delights of the Princess Buppha Devi School dance performances is the chance to see the artistry involved — and the gloriously ornate costumes  — at close quarters. The audience is seated informally on chairs and cushions before the simple stage area, a format that, together with the small studio setting, gives the performance an intimate feel.

Young students perform the Robam Chmaa.

The shows take place on Mondays and every second Tuesday at 7 p.m. I went on a Monday night. The Tuesday shows have a different programme with a bonus screening of A Perfect Motion, a must-see 2023 documentary on the Royal Ballet. The performance I saw opened with the Robam Chmaa, or Cat Dance, choreographed especially for children by the late Queen Sisowath Kossamak, Buppha Devi’s grandmother and former patron of the Royal Ballet, a routine with traditional dance moves but performed by youngsters in the cutest furry cat costumes.

The headline performance was The Coronation of King Jayavarman VII, a new piece that veered between a tender love story and — surprisingly, bearing in mind the generally slow, carefully-controlled nature of the dance form — some exhilarating battle scenes that incorporated moves from the ancient Cambodian martial art of Bokator. It is altogether a colorful and absorbing spectacle.

The Princess Buppha Devi Dance School is a non-profit cultural organization launched some four years ago, under the direction of Prince Sisowath Tesso, to continue the Princess’s mission. Ticket sales help to support the excellent work it does with students from all walks of life, and to promote this important cultural tradition.

The Cambodian Royal Ballet caught the imagination of the sculptor Rodin during its tour of France in 1906.  He captured the dancers in a series of over a hundred drawings and watercolors.

You can find the Princess Buppha Devi Dance School at Aquation, Studio B6 (first right behind the dinosaur), Treellion Park, 540 Koh Pich St, Phnom Penh.

Tickets are available from Last2tickets, priced $25 ($12.50 for Cambodian citizens).

Classical dance: 

Movie + dance:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.