Apsaras – From the legend to the Khmer classical dance

 In Classical Dance, Khmer traditions, Phnom Penh, Traditions

Apsaras are one of the most emblematic symbols of Khmer identity.  But do you know who they are and what they represent?

In few words, Apsaras are female spirits of the clouds and waters in Hindu culture and were born, according to the legend, from the foam created by the Churning of the Ocean of Milk in the Indian epic “Mahabharatta”. They are celestial nymphs of great grace and sensuality who embody the pleasure of the senses and of the spirit. To some extent, we can compare Apsaras to the muses of ancient Greece.

In the ancient Indian mythology, Apsaras are young and beautiful creatures dancing at the court of Indra, the king of the gods.

During the Angkor monarchy, Apsara dancers would perform the sacred and ritual dances in royal palaces for official ceremonies, in order to grant a wish from the Deities or to give a blessing to the King or welcome distinguished guests. Apsaras are widely represented in the bas-reliefs on the walls of Khmer temples, especially those of Angkor Wat.

Apsara dance is a form of classical dance that was under Royal Patronage of the King, and solely performed in the ancient days at the Royal Court and Palaces for ritual ceremonies purposes to appease the gods and as offerings to them. They are indeed at the heart of Cambodian culture and civilization. It was initially known – back in the early sixties’ “Golden Age” of the Royal Ballet – as “Robam Apsara – Le Ballet des Apsaras” to name the dance featuring the Apsaras celestial dancers only, and the name was recently extended to the entire répertoire of the Royal Ballet in the 1990’s at the end of the war.

The main characteristics of the dance are the hand gestures. With more than 1,500 different gestures, each movement of the fingers and positions of the arms have its own distinct meaning, all related to ancient legends. To give you an idea, it takes a dancer around 6 years to learn all the hand gestures and around 2 hours to show them all in a row.

Like most of other Cambodian cultural traditions, Khmer classical dances as well as folk dances were severely repressed and banned during the Khmer regime and 90% of the dancers and musicians were deported out of the Royal Palace and Capital city, killed or locked up.

Princess Buppha Devi – the eldest daughter of the late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, who was herself the Prima Ballerina in the “Corps du Ballet Royal” in the 60’s, had an important role in the current revival of Khmer Apsara dance. Hence in November 2003, it was put on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nowadays, it is still becoming more and more popular.

If you visit Phnom Penh, you should not miss a traditional Khmer dance show. There are different shows in the city, you can check the schedules at the National Museum or at the Sovanna Phum Arts Association.

In January 2019, you can attend as well the new creation of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, “Metamorphosis” on January 18th and 19th, 2019.

If you want to explore more of Phnom Penh’s best kept secrets in an original way, join our daily interactive walking adventure!

Photo Credit: Facebook page Ballet Royal du Cambodge

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