By Lucretia Stewart
Princess Buppha Devi was twenty-three when she danced for General de Gaulle on the terrace in front of Angkor Wat. That was over forty years ago, in 1966, before the Vietnam War and the Cambodian holocaust, when Cambodia was a very different place.
In his memoirs, Sihanouk Reminisces, her father, King Sihanouk, recalled the occasion. “One of the highlights of the de Gaulles’ stay was a visit to the temples of Angkor and the spectacular son et lumière I arranged in the venerable setting of Angkor Wat, the magnificence of which had never been seen before. De Gaulle was spellbound by the fireworks and by the performances which followed.”
Princess Buppha Devi, now over sixty, is Minister of Culture and Fine Arts in her country’s government, a job she takes very seriously. She has not danced – in public, at least – she says, for ten or fifteen years. But Cambodian classical dance, which she regards as part of the national heritage, remains her passion. When I interviewed her recently at her office in Phnom Penh, she told me that she had learned “to dance almost as soon as she could walk.” Her mother, a commoner, was also a dancer, but it was her grandmother, Queen Kossamak, who took charge of her and moulded her as a dancer.
“Dance has been in my family for generations,” she said, “My mother, my grandmother – my father even played a musical instrument to accompany the royal ballet. But it belongs to all Khmers and, as I see it, our principal aim is now the preservation of classical dance – not only dance, but all of our culture.”
The Princess, like most Cambodians, is tiny. As you would expect, she holds herself beautifully and she still has the figure of a young girl. Although she can seem rather intimidating (I found myself simultaneously curtsying and putting my hands together and bowing my head in the sampeah, the traditional gesture of respect, every time we met or said goodbye), her smile is very sweet and she has an easy way with people. She is determined that Cambodian dance should reach a wider public (the royal ballet has already toured the United States).
She told me that Cambodian classical dance – or court ballet, as it is sometimes known – dated back to the time of the Khmer Empire at Angkor (the ninth to the fifteenth century) and had been associated with the Royal Court of Cambodia for over a thousand years. It is composed primarily of episodes from the Reamker, which is the Cambodian version of the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
Although it is based on the Indian epic, the Reamker contains many episodes that do not exist in the original, and, unlike the Brahmanist Ramayana, it is interpreted from a Buddhist point of view. It is also a uniquely Cambodian representation of social relationships and the moral universe, where the dancer embodies the Khmer ideals of beauty, grace and continuity – continuity not only between past and present, but also between the realm of the gods and that of men.
“Cambodian classical dance has always been under the protection of the royal family, of my family,” she said, “with dancers traditionally being taken into the Palace and being brought up there. Even today, when dance has become less associated with our family, it is not unusual for dancers to spend a certain amount of time at the Palace.”
A special building, the Chan Chaya, meaning of the Shadow of the Moon Pavilion, intended for performances of classical dance, was constructed by King Sisowath, Sihanouk’s great-great-uncle, within the Royal Palace compound. In 1906, Sisowath took a troupe of nearly one hundred dancers to France.
There the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, then aged sixty-six, was entranced by the dancers when he saw them perform at a reception given by the Minister of Colonies in the Bois du Boulogne in Paris.
“The Cambodians,” Rodin wrote afterwards, “have shown us everything that antiquity could have contained. It is impossible to think of anyone wearing human nature to such perfection; except them and the Greeks.” Rodin drew the dancers over and over again, saying, “The friezes of Angkor were coming to life before my very eyes.”
In Cambodian classical dance, a dancer usually dances only one, or at most, two roles. Princess Buppha Devi’s role was, fittingly, always that of “Apsara”, as the heavenly dancing girls who decorate the walls of the temples at Angkor are called. In pre-Vedic Indian mythology, the Apsara were water nymphs who lived in lotus pools. They were very beautiful and sometimes lured men to their deaths; they were also associated with fertility rites. Apsara was also the name of Sihanouk’s first feature film; Princess Buppha Devi starred in the title role.
This is how Sihanouk’s biographer, Milton Osborne, described what was normally laid on for visiting Heads of State:
“All would watch the traditional classical Cambodian dances performed to the music of the pinpeat orchestra, a mix of drums, gongs, traditional clarinets and strings. Seen for the first time, this was a truly exotic scene as dancers, richly clad in silks shot through with gold thread, played out stories drawn from ancient Indian legends. At times the dancing was slow and measured, full of abstract grace. At other times it was marked by buffoonery, as dancers playing the parts of monkeys in aversion of the Ramayana scratched for fleas beneath their armpits. Adding a special touch of glamor to these performances was the fact that the principal female dancer was Sihanouk’s beautiful daughter Buppha Devi.”
De Gaulle wasn’t the only world leader to be captivated by the Princess’s dancing and by her beauty. She also performed for General Tito, China’s Chou en-Lai and President Sukarno (the last admired her so much that he apparently asked Sihanouk for her hand in marriage), as well as for Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Margaret.
But, when the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country in 1975, the dancing had to stop. Millions of Cambodians died and many fled their homeland. Princess Buppha Devi was amongst those who left. “I went with my grandmother to Peking in 1973 – she died there in 1975 ten days after the fall of Phnom Penh – and I wasn’t able to come back to Cambodia until 1991 when my father also returned home.” I asked her where she had spent almost twenty years of exile. “Well, after Peking, we were in Korea and then we ended up in Paris where I came across many Cambodian musicians and dancers who were also exiles. I gave lessons to young dancers and, in 1982, I went to the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border and taught dance there.”
One Monday morning in early October, on the first day back at school for the students at the Faculty of Fine Arts, where both classical and traditional dance are taught (as well as Khmer literature), I went to watch Ouk Phalla rehearse. Phalla is a prima ballerina and also the dancer who is said most to resemble Princess Buppha Devi in the role of Apsara. I had interviewed her at the school few days before. Like all classical dancers, she began her rigorous training as a child when she was just nine years old. She first performed in public at the age of thirteen. Now aged twenty-three, she is as beautiful as a lotus blossom and as graceful as a willow. I asked her to show me how far back she could bend her fingers. Effortlessly she pushed them back until they touched her wrist.
Minutes after Phalla had returned from changing into her practice outfit, a piece of dark cloth folded to make a pair of loose trousers and worn with a silver chain belt, and a tightly-fitting low-necked blouse, the Princess, flanked by her three Pekinese dogs, arrived to supervise the rehearsal. Someone fetched a cushion and she took a seat on a low platform next to the musicians. The skeleton rehearsal orchestra started up: a double-sided drum, a gamelan (which is a sort of oriental xylophone) and a big wooden wheel festooned with tinkling bells. Simultaneously a chorus of four elderly women began a kind of high-pitched, nasal chant. While the dogs jumped on and off the stage and ran round and round in circles until they finally settled at their mistress’s feet, Princess Buppha Devi, waving a cigarette in the air, carefully scrutinised three dancers, including Phalla, as they performed the Apsara dance.
The dance, the Princess told me, can involve as few as three and as many as nine dancers (one of whom is always the star – in this case, Phalla). It had a curious, dreamy quality to it, a serenity and a kind of timelessness as though it could go on forever. This was in part because of the music which seems other-worldly, in part because none of the movements were fast – they were all slow and graceful but intensely controlled – and in part because of the ethereal beauty and incredible sweetness of expression of Phalla.
As the Pekes frisked around Phalla’s contorted legs, Princess Buppha Devi demonstrated precisely how a particular gesture or movement should be executed (once the Princess moved so did the dogs). On stage, performing, the Princess retained the grace and flexibility of a much younger woman, as did Em Theay, another dancer (and former teacher of Princess Buppha Devi), who still dances and teaches although she is sixty-nine.
Em Theay is one of the few dancers left from before 1975. Many died during what Cambodians always refer to as “Pol Pot time”, a period, as every Cambodian whom you meet will tell you, of exactly three years, eight months and twenty days; others have died of old age. Em Theay’s mother, she told me, had been the Queen’s cook; her father “servant to the old King.” At the age of seven, she was chosen to train as a dancer by Queen Kossomak and when Sihanouk became king, she went to live at the Palace. Her role was, and is, that of the Giant or Reap, a part that is traditionally played by a strong woman (Em Theay is, however, characteristically petite by Western standards); she was happy to demonstrate for us some of the gestures and steps, and also to show us several albums of photographs of her in the role and at the Palace where she still often spends her days.
When the Khmer Rouge came, Em Theay was forty-three. She was forced to go to Battambang Province in the northwest of the country. “Everyone knew I was a dancer and they liked to see me dance,” she said, “I also looked after children. I sang songs to send them to sleep and people would gather round to listen.”
Now Em Theay teaches at the National Theatre and at the Faculty of Fine Arts (in the old days, she even taught Princess Buppha Devi). She still performs and, when we met, was preparing for a show in Singapore. Both her daughter and her granddaughter are dancers, but she fears for the future of Cambodian classical dance. She says that the government is not sufficiently careful enough about safeguarding Khmer culture and civilization.
Her fears are echoed by Ouk Phalla who says, “Young people prefer Karaoke to classical dance.” Phalla believes that it is her duty as a dancer to preserve her heritage, to help Cambodia and to be a symbol of Cambodia.
In this, she echoes Princess Buppha Devi’s claims for classical dance. As the latter says, “The dance is sacred; we do it for the glory of God,” adding, “But it’s our lifeblood we are preserving here.”
About the Author:
Born in Singapore as the daughter of a diplomat, Lucretia Stewart has spent her life traveling in Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas. As a child, she grew up in China, and was later drawn back to the region to experience Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
Stewart first worked extensively as a journalist, before focusing on her career as an author. Her books include Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia (1992), The Weather Prophet: A Caribbean Journey (1995), Making Love: A Romance (1999) and Travelling Hopefully: A Golden Age of Travel Writing (2006). In 2000 she also edited Erogenous Zones: An Anthology of Sex Abroad.
She continues to contribute to a number of magazines, while contributing chapters to numerous publications. She lives in Naxos, Greece…when she is not traveling.