For its first major public appearance since its launching in 2020, a few months after the passing of HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi (1943-2019), the Dance School's students -- with dancers from the Banteay Srei company Sacred Dancers of Angkor joining in -- came to the stage of the 'Black Box' at Canadian International School-Phnom Penh on May 7, 2022, with a completely novel choreography, and with a bang.
'The Legend of Jayavarman VII & Queen Indradevi', the performance created by Kru (Teacher) Om Youvanndy, ballet mistress and head teacher of the Buppha Devi School, is composed of tableaus renewing the ancestral tradition of Cambodian 'dance theatre', switching between playful, solemn, moving or enthrancing moments, a register of emotions ingrained in the Ramakerti, the Khmer version of the Ramayana epic and the source of Cambodian court dance.
The tone was set at the start, when the youngest of the some 100 school's students, aged 7 to 12, performed the Robam Chhmaa (Dance of the Cats), a number conceived by Queen Kossamak, Princess Buppha Devi's grandmother and the force behind the rejuvenation of the 'Apsara Dance' in the 1950s. Kru Vanndy, who herself danced it in front of the Queen in her childhood and performed it for the national television in the 1960s, wanted to open this evocation of King Jayavarman VII and Queens Indradevi and Jayarajadevi, major figures of the Cambodian history, on a juvenile, endearing note.
HRH Prince Sisowath Tesso, the creative director of the School who spent many years at the side of Princess Buppha Devi to bring a renewed energy and meaning to the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, is aiming at the same artistic direction: bringing tradition to the young generations, encouraging them to keep ancient art forms alive and in phase with contemporary Cambodia. Tellingly, the ancestral musical score (pinpeat) has been entrusted to young musicians from Wat Botum Pagoda, while costumes and accessories have been designed to the equally young Hong Chheanghout from the Mealai Khmer Arts Studio, who researched the Bayon and Preah Khan bas-reliefs and sculptures for the performance.
Then, we're transported to the court of the two queen sisters, radiantly played by Thon Sophany for Indradevi, and for Jayarajadevi by Ny Monyneath, a popular movie star and TV personality who has willingly submitted herself to hours of rigorous rehearsal with the ballet. History researchers have recently developed the profile of these remarkable female sovereigns, who largely contributed to the implementation of a generous healthcare and social solidarity system at the peak of the Khmer Empire.
After the passing of her sister, Indradevi, who was a poetess and a Sanskrit teacher, helped Jayavarman VII -- here played also by a woman, the talented Savath Sreylen -- to bring Angkor to the sophisticated entity we're still learning about, which also generated frictions with its neighbors, and so we see the illustrious King preparing for a major naval battle, first crossing the Tonle Sap Lake with his soldiers and oarsmen on his way to the East.
Then, the final tableau engulfs the audience in a colorful, jubilating explosion of grace and joy, with bokathor (Cambodian martial arts) fighters hopping around serene apsaras, dancers holding intricate panels of nang sbek (shadow theater) and even maidens twirling scintillating hula hoops. The kittens are now back as nimble monkeys, showing once again that even if Cambodian people had some misgivings about this animal so ubiquitous in the Indian Ramayana, as Khmerologist Pou Saveros so aptly remarkedremarked, they managed to integrate it to their own artistic universe .
There is definitely a bright future for performing, studying and enjoying beauty in Cambodia.
From left to right among the dancers and students, Ms. Ravynn Karet Coxen, founder of Sacred Dancers of Angkor; Prince Tesso Sisowath; Kru Vanndy:
The event was made possible thanks to partnership with CIS (Canadian International School), Aquation Office Park, Sacred Dancers of Angkor, ទេពបទុមវង្ស ពិណពាទ្ (Tep Botum Vong Pinpeat) and ហាងអលង្ការ និង មកុដ ភួងមាល័យ បាយសីខ្មែរ (Mealai Khmer Arts Studio).
Photos 2, 5, 6, 8, 9,10, 11 by Christophe Gargiulo/Cambodge Mag.