A propitiation hailing from a Kingdom of Wonders, or a regal Khmer entreaty towards the gods
របាំព្រះរាជទ្រព្យ, or Royal Cambodian Court Ballet is a form of performing arts established in the heart of the Khmer regal court, erstwhile exclusively available to royalty, nobles and other courtiers.
The Kingdom of Cambodia is the world's second oldest monarchy after Japan, throughout the centuries Khmer royalty developed exquisite artistic expressions such as the ballet in an effort to please the gods.
Albeit the Royal Cambodian Ballet is now available for the masses to enjoy, it is intrinsically linked to Khmer royalty. Today the ballet's patron is HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a sister to HM The King of Cambodia. She was a distinguished dancer in the 1960s.
Princess Norodom Buppha Devi (b. 8 January 1943) was selected as the ballet's 'prima ballerina' in 1961 when turning 18 years old.
She had been inducted as a dancer by her grandmother Queen Sisowath Kossamak
Princess Norodom Buppha Devi oversaw, and lobbied for the artistic performance's inscription in the UNESCO list of intangible world heritage during her tenure as Minister of Culture and Fine Arts of Cambodia in 2008.
It was proclaimed UNESCO heritage already in 2003 before the princess' ministerial end of term.
The UNESCO status became pivotal after Cambodia became a free nation again in 1993, for the RCB was almost annihilated during the Khmer Rouge regime. Through its UNESCO status the Royal Court intends to preserve the ballet for generations, and for the world's enjoyment.
Classical dance costumes are highly ornate and heavily embroidered, sometimes including sequins and even semi-precious gems. Most of the costumes are thought to be representative of what divinities wear, as reflected in the art style of the post-Angkor period. Various pieces of the costume (such as shirts) have to be sewn onto the dancers for a tight fit. Normally aides stand by to dress and undress the dancers backstage.
Male characters wear costumes that are more intricate than the females, as they require pieces, like sleeves, to be sewn together whilst being worn.
Some characters' headdressings include ear ornaments as well as earrings. Characters such as ogres and monkeys wear masks. Ogres and monkeys of royal rank wear masks with a mokot attached
There are several types of crowns that denote characters' ranks. Commonly worn by female characters of the lowest rank is the kbang; it is also worn by Brahmin characters with ornaments around a bun of hair.
Divinities and royal characters of the highest ranks wear a tall single-spire crown called a 'mokot ksat' for male characters and a 'mokot ksatrey' for female characters.
Today most dancers are female, however, the RCB is encouraging families to train young males in the tradition to revive the erstwhile male-only dances that began to decline with the arrival of the French to Cambodia in the XIX century.
Dancers are traditionally adorned with fragrant flowers, although sometimes fresh flowers are substituted with faux flowers.
Female dancers were originally thought to represent the 'apsaras'; that is, mythical spirits of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist culture. Cambodia being a Buddhist kingdom.
A few dancers perform as 'devata', or angelic beings, the closest to the gods.
The apsara role is most identifiable, and common. The music used for Khmer classical dance is played by a pinpeat ensemble.
Other roles include ogres, or 'asuras' as well as animals, whereby mostly monkeys, and ever so often mythical creatures, horses, or aquatic beings.
Monkeys are the most usual owing to their association to Brahman, the Hindu principle of the universe.
Today HRH Prince Sisowath Tesso of Cambodia serves as Director of the Royal Cambodian Ballet, and oversees its internationalisation. The latter being a personal mission for Prince Tesso who bears witness to the deplorable state wherein the RCB was left after years of dictatorship in his country. He engages with opera houses in many countries in order to bring the RCB to new destinations. Under his guidance the RCB performed for the very first time in 2014 in the Middle East (i.e. Bahrain), and 2019 at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Images by Alain Hanel - Royal Cambodian Ballet courtesy of HRH Prince Sisowath Tesso of Cambodia (http://royalbridges.org/home/project/hrh-preah-ang-machashigh-prince-sisowath-tesso-of-cambodia/).
The Royal Cambodian Ballet is listed as UNESCO intangible universal heritage: