The 25 Khmer classical dancers who will perform for the first time in Phnom Penh tonight comprise a rather unusual dance company.
For one, they all grew up in the shadow of the Banteay Srei monument in the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap province.
“I live in Tuol Kralanh [village] about 100 meters from Banteay Srei,” said Saing Sreynin.
There, the dancers spent between seven and eight years studying Khmer classical dance—four hours per day and five days per week, in accordance with Ministry of Culture directives.
In 2007, Ravynn Karet-Coxen added a traditional dance and music school to the programs that her Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia was running in villages near the monument. So far, 176 dancers have enrolled in the school, she said.
But dancers need to perform and make a living. So Ms. Karet-Coxen also formed a dance company for graduates of the school and has helped them book performances. In addition to regular shows at luxury hotels in Siem Reap City, the Sacred Dancers of Angkor toured the U.S. in 2013 and will embark on a European tour in a few months.
Although they have performed in public numerous times, dancers interviewed on Tuesday seemed nervous about dancing in front of a Phnom Penh audience for the first time.
“I am feeling afraid, but also happy,” said 21-year-old Sim Savuth.
What the dancers will present at the Chaktomuk Theater tonight is Khmer classical dance in its most traditional form: a 90-minute version of the Reamker, Cambodia’s version of the Indian epic tale Ramayana. It was choreographed by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a star dancer in the 1960s and the company’s patron.
Rehearsing the tale of kidnapping, battles and love affairs has been a demanding undertaking, said Ms. Sreynin, 19. “We have to concentrate, be in the scene…and do this for every scene,” which follow one another at a rapid pace, she said. And while the dancers may appear stoic, they explained, they must nonetheless feel and reflect in their movements the emotions of their characters.
For the performance, Ms. Karet-Coxen designed simplified versions of traditional costumes while respecting the colors that the various characters must wear, such as green for Preah Ream, the prince. As for headpieces, they will don crowns made of palm leaves, reflecting the greenery of the Angkor Archaeological Park and the villages in which they live.
And after all, Ms. Karet-Coxen said, palm trees are part “of Cambodia’s national identity.”
The performance starts at 7 p.m.
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