21 March 2012

When the apsaras dance

Dressed in the silk and gold of a traditional Khymer costume, a dancer turns and bends in a closing gesture. She presses a lotus flower to her lips, covering a softly enigmatic smile. The nighttime dance ends, the music fades ...

Created to entertain the Khmer royalty, classical Cambodian dance -- also called Apsara dance -- presents themes and stories inspired primarily by the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Indian classic, the Ramayana) and the age of Angkor. The dancers in the performance we saw at our hotel had an ethereal quality that reminded us that in Hindu myth, the apsaras -- or celestial dancers -- were one of the 13 gifts born of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, a 1,000-year effort in which the gods and demons cooperated under Vishnu's guidance to obtain the elixir of immortality.

In Hindu myth, the apsaras are paired with the ghandarvas, the court musicians of Indra, king of the demi-gods. The ghandarvas make music to which their beautiful consorts dance in the celestial palaces.

Hundreds of carved apsaras decorate the Angkor temples, over 1800 in Angkor Wat itself. To my mind, they give the temple buildings a joyous air. It is said that no two are exactly alike in their dress and hairstyle. Serene, mysterious, the apsaras of Angkor are a captivating expression of femininity and exquisite works of art. View more apsaras and more information about their significance.

The ancient art form of Khmer dance has always received royal patronage; even into the 20th century this has been true.  Queen Sisowath Kossamak "fostered a resurgence in the study and development of Khmer traditional dance, but also helped move it out of the palace and popularize it," according to one Cambodian travel guide.  The Queen trained her granddaughter Princess Bopha Devi from early childhood in the art of traditional dance.  In the 1950s and 60s, the princess was the face of Khmer traditional dance, both in Cambodia and around the world. Many traditional dances that are seen in performances today were developed and refined between the 1940s and 1960s under the guidance and patronage of Queen Sisowath Kossamak at the Conservatory of Performing Arts and the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. 
This video of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia gives a wonderful glimpse into the music, the costuming and most of all the highly stylized gestures of this rich dance form.  Imagine the apsaras have stepped off the temple frieze to perform for a moment in time.

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