Music and Dance
Cambodia’s dance traditions pre-date the formation of the first Indianized culture in the region. These earliest dances were most likely tied to rituals for key points in the human life cycle, such as marriage or death (funerary) rites. After 500 CE, Indian culture spread to Cambodia, wherein it was adapted to fit indigenous culture.
Cambodian dance experienced a golden age from 802 to 1431 CE, during the era of Angkor, and the founding of the Khmer empire. During the Khmer period, large cities, temples, and palaces were built, such as the beautiful temple of Angkor Wat. Along with material arts, performance art also developed to fit a new, sophisticated, courtly culture. The primary dancers in Khmer dance were women, who danced for the entertainment of the king, as well as for religious rituals in the newly-built temples. Dancing women were said to embody the spirit of the apsaras, or heavenly nymphs, and their dancing brought happiness and harmony to the kingdom, according to Khmer folklore. This exemplary tradition of female dancers continues in Cambodia to this day.
The Indian influence over Khmer dance did not diminish, however. Much as in Thailand, the Khmers developed their own version of the Hindu story, the Ramayana. Along with the story, a new type of dance-drama was developed, which in Cambodia is known as the Ramker. Unfortunately, we know little about this original type of Khmer dance, due to the Thai takeover of Khmer Cambodia in 1431 CE. Thailand took home artists, dancers, and storytellers as spoils of war, and in this exchange, Cambodian culture drew in a distinctly Thai flavour. Later Cambodian dance-drama traditions look and sound like their Thai counterparts, with little distinction between the two. Today, many Khmer dance rituals are performed in Thai-style costumes, recognizable for their tall golden crowns.
Dance has been linked to the monarchy through Cambodia’s history. The Royal Cambodian Ballet performed a repertoire of about forty roeung dance-dramas, and over sixty purely dance pieces. In those pieces that are strictly dance, the performers are almost entirely female. Students of the courtly dance traditions were expected to make it their careers, and would practice in royal institutions for many hours each day in order to gain the strength and flexibility necessary to memorize and perform the complex choreography. In the days prior to colonialism, children as young as four would be sent to the temples and palace schools to become professional dancers. However, since the takeover of the Cambodian government by rebel communists in 1970, there has been little support for the classical arts. The future for the aristocratic dance traditions is currently uncertain, though interest in Khmer-style classical dance still exists, both in Cambodia, and abroad.
Cambodia also has various forms of theatre which are similar to its Southeast Asian neighbours. Puppet theatre in Cambodia is called nang shek thom, and is closely related to the puppet theatre of Thailand. Unlike the courtly arts, however, Cambodia’s spoken-word theatre came to life during the years of French colonization, and is very similar to the theatre found in Vietnam. In Cambodia, the spoken-word theatre is called lakhon bassac, and the plots for these plays are usually centered on historical or religious themes, such as the birth stories of the Buddha. Western-style theatre has also been introduced to Cambodia, and was also popular during the colonial period.
The violence in recent decades in Cambodia has caused the arts to undergo a severe change. Like many cultural institutions, the Cambodian classical arts lost their patronage during the violent decades of the Khmer Rouge regime, and artists were forced to flee the country or go into hiding to escape being branded part of the “old” ways. Many of these artists came to the United States, where several Cambodian dance troupes have been started by performers-in-exile. Thankfully, the Cambodian performance arts are experiencing a rebirth through new outside interest and the continued determination of Cambodians outside of the country to preserve their artistic heritage. Cambodia’s musical and performance traditions are also supported by the monarchy, which was re-installed in 1993. Many of the surviving royal family, including King Norodom Sihamoni, are trained in both Western and Khmer classical ballet. However, despite rising popularity, the future of the arts in Cambodia is still extremely uncertain.
For more information on Cambodian performance arts, please visit these websites:
Cambodian Classical Dance
Good site for links about Cambodian cultural performing arts:
An excellent site about the Khmer ballet corps with pictures:
A unique glimpse at the performing arts prior to the Khmer Rouge: 1968 article about the Khmer ballet, in French, with older pictures:
An interesting article about the history of Khmer classical dance after fall of the Khmer Rouge and into the 1980s:
The Near Extinction of Cambodian Classical Dance