BALLET ROYAL DU CAMBODGE
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Renommé pour sa gestuelle gracieuse et ses somptueux costumes, le Ballet royal du Cambodge (également appelé danse classique khmère) est étroitement lié à la cour khmère depuis plus de mille ans. Ses représentations accompagnaient traditionnellement les cérémonies royales et des événements comme les couronnements, les mariages, les funérailles ou les fêtes khmères. Cette forme d’art, qui a échappé de justesse à l’anéantissement dans les années 1970, est vénérée par de nombreux Cambodgiens.
Investie d’un rôle sacré et symbolique, la danse incarne les valeurs traditionnelles de raffinement, de respect et de spiritualité. Son répertoire immortalise les légendes fondatrices du peuple khmer. C’est pourquoi les Cambodgiens la considèrent depuis toujours comme l’emblème de la culture khmère. Le répertoire classique comporte quatre types de personnages :
Neang la femme,
Yeak le géant et
Sva le singe.
Chacun possède des couleurs, des costumes, un maquillage et des masques qui lui sont propres. La gestuelle et les postures, dont la maîtrise exige des années de formation intensive, traduisent toute la gamme des émotions humaines, de la crainte et de la rage à l’amour et à la joie. Un orchestre accompagne la danse, tandis qu’un chœur de femmes commente l’intrigue et souligne les émotions mimées par les danseurs. Ces derniers étaient considérés comme les messagers des rois auprès des dieux et des ancêtres.
Le Ballet royal a pratiquement disparu sous le régime répressif des Khmers rouges qui ont exterminé presque tous les maîtres de danse et les musiciens. Immédiatement après la défaite de Pol Pot en 1979, des troupes de danse se sont reformées et ont repris les représentations de l’ancien répertoire. Si le ballet a quasiment retrouvé sa splendeur d’antan, il n’en reste pas moins confronté à de nombreuses difficultés telles le manque de fonds et de lieux de représentation, la concurrence des médias modernes et le risque d’être transformé en une simple attraction touristique.
Classical Khmer Ballet of Cambodia October 19 - 24, 1971
Part of the Afro-Asian Festival at BAM
Footage courtesy of BAM Hamm Archives - BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Nokor Khmer 1970 English
By Charles Meyer
Translate from French by Avril Yockney
CLASSICAL Cambodian dancing never fails to bewilder the uninitiated seeing it for the first time. Being unfamiliar with the legend or the story upon which the dance is based, or knowing too little of it, he is unable to find his bearings from the music or the choreography. In addition, the gestures expressing the story and the emotions are largely a closed book to him, and he is tempted to give them significations he derives from his own culture. The brisk rhythm of the orchestra, the singing which he hears but indistinctly, and the apparent slowness of the dance all add to his confusion. But-he is dazzled by the sumptuous costumes and falls under a kind of spell, from which some people escape only to regret not being initiated into subtleties which they but fleetingly recognise or divine.
An outsider watching can do no more, in fact, than watch the dances of the Royal Ballet more or less passively and abandon himself to their magic charm. Nevertheless, he will derive great aesthetic pleasure from them, and, if he wishes to delve deeper into this finely developed art, he will experience the unbounded joy of discovering new aspects of the refinements of artistic creation. But, it is the Khmers alone who are privileged actually to take part in these performances of dance and song because only they are able to penetrate easily into the world of heroes and gods enacted. It is more their imagination than their environment which enables them to “live” the adventures being sung about by the choir to the accompaniment of the orchestra, and the dancers’ presence is essential only for the complete fulfilment of the tale, rather as a proof of the communicableness between the world of gods and the world of man.
In fact, the audience, whether composed of princes or ordinary mortals, often gives but cursory attention' to the gyrations of the dancers, and rare are the people who fully understand the symbolism of their gestures.
It should not be overlooked that the Khmer dancers are above all acolytes who passed long years studying the gestures of a ritual whose significance concerns them but little. These gestures and poses are transmitted, by the teacher to the pupil separately and in sequence according to tradition, the only concern being to attain a perfect execution of the rite. Very aptly, Jeanne Cuisinier wrote : “‘For the Cambodian dancer, to create does not signify to give a new form life, but in some manner to reintroduce life into an eternal form; to introduce life into her dance, the artiste must first of all enter the cycle in which she has her place. Her creation is just as transient as it is impersonal.”
It is likely that detailed treatises on the dance and its techniques were to be found in the libraries of the Angkorian temples and palaces. But they suffered the fate of thousands of other manuscripts when the great capital was sacked by the Siamese. Nevertheless, it is disturbing to realise that documentation on the techniques of the religious and royal dances could vanish without leaving the slightest trace in the memory of men, while the rituals of invocation and offering related to those same dances - such as that of the Sampeah Kru - have been transmitted in a simplified and no doubt altered form right down to our days. We know that the Khmer sovereigns managed to save from their foundered empire the wherewithal to perpetuate "the royal rites, including, without doubt, a nucleus of dancers. How was it possible, in such circumstances, for chorographical texts to be forgotten or for them not to be reconstituted by the people whose breviary they were? And why did the Kings of Siam, who seized the cultural treasures of Angkor and took such a great interest in classical dancing, fail to ensure that they were preserved?
The most plausible explanation is that the inflexible rules of Indian choreography were never fully adopted by the Khmers. In this respect, the figures of Asparas on the walls of the great temples of Angkor represent only a very small selection of the gestures and attitudes of the dance. It is hard to believe that the Khmers took over from the Indian Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpanam the 32 mudras executed with one hand, the 23 two-handed mudras, 13 head movements, 10 body and foot positions, and so on, with their multiple combinations. But it is certain that they took from Southern India the gestures essential to religious ceremonies, in particular that of the offering, which reoccurs so often in the dance as well as in connection with the interpretation of the great legends.
What must be recognised is the fundamental difference between the spirit of Khmer classical dancing and that of Indian dancing. In both cases, as elsewhere in Asia, the dance, in addition to its strictly cultural role, is also a solemn spectacle and takes pride of place among mimed dramas of a religious nature. In India, it employs a sufficient number of signs (the dictionary of Kathakali contains 504 mudras) to make it a language in itself. In Cambodia, as in Indonesia, its role is purely to accompany and illustrate a recitative, and it is accompanied by an orchestra having a repertoire of some 20 pieces which can be adapted to suit every requirement. George Groslier noted in this respect: “The Khmer dancer is an actress, a mimic. She represents a legendary figure. She expresses the feelings and carries out the actions sung about by the choir of women seated along one side of the hall. Each phrase elicits a gesture or determines the stance taken up by the dancer.” In practice, the dancers know their parts so perfectly that the Spectator is hard put to tell whether their movements precede or follow the words of the song.
This lengthy introduction shows that in the field of choreography as in that of the other art forms, what is termed the “Hinduizing” of Cambodia is far from being so extensive as is all too often claimed. India’s philosophic, religious and scientific contribution has determined the evolution of Khmer thought, but the influence of Indian art has done no more than assist the flowering of a highly original Khmer art. The dance must surely offer one of the most convincing examples of this.
An outsider’s dancing view of Khmer dancing
Many foreign authors have attempted to describe classical Cambodian dancing. We know of brilliant exercises in style published in the’ West since the turn of the century, but few achieve their purpose. As a rule, the authors have contented themselves with references to the Asparas of Angkor and to the distant past, which serve to dissimulate a certain incapacity to define the movements. Writers and poets thus concentrate all their attention on the dancers and consider the dance only as a sort of “tableau vivant” inspired by the bas reliefs of the Khmer monuments. A letter written by Lyautey in' 1896, riddled with errors but marked by sensitivity and typifying the impressions of the vast majority of passing visitors, sets the note:
“A vision of Angkor, the hieratic Asparas of the has reliefs advance one by one with the smile and in the costumes and attitudes recorded by the sculptor' twenty centuries ago. And, when one returns from a wondrous Angkor, as we have done, it is striking to see from a distant and dim stand the sacred Asparas, who back there in the granite form a cortege to Brahma all around the temple, advancing under the light in their golden headdresses, their arms outstretched and their knees bent.”
Yet there are Western spectators who remain unmoved and do not permit themselves the slightest emotion at the sight of the Khmer dance. The most notable of these is Paul Claudel. At Angkor, this poet of Catholic intolerance saw: “The temple of the Devil, which the earth was not able to, tolerate”, and “everywhere these Asparas with Ethiopian smiles dancing a kind of sinister cancan on the ruins. Only. voluptuous female figures remain and endless crowd of prancing Asparas who mount skywards like droves of mosquitoes or gas battles.”
In Phnom Penh, he attended and evening dance performance offered by King Sisowath, but this did not make him more human : “The small, white-faced dancers in superb costumes: breeches, gold rings, a kind of Baldrick, golden helmets with long spikes, gold and precious stones (the dancers are sewn into their clothes). Everything is expressed through evolutions, through stretching, through something like slow, hypnotic passes. You would think that the dancers had no bones, that their ranks were moved, opened, ordered and closed by waves emanating from their stomachs. These little cries (sic) uttered by the courted princess, this face she turn regularly towards him while the hypnotic gestures go on.”
Today such elucubrations are irritating, but indicate a lack of ' understanding, an arrogance even, which has' not entirely disappeared. From another angle, the international choreographical art experts have tried to define Khmer dancing "technically, too. analyse it by proved methods, to compare it with the dances of other, sometimes very far off. countries and triumphantly to place it in a certain “school”. The result of these researches is, in any case, rather disappointing. While it is not without interest to discover ourselves in the” presence of a restrained dance “setting grace and charm and even affectation against an elementary vigour; a desire for placidity, restfulness and a harmonious denouement against the dynamic development of an unchanging ideal”, and, at the same time of a twisting dance in which “the arms and legs are bent at definite angles, the shoulder blades are pressed against each other, the abdomen is retracted and the whole body is contorted.” We must admit, though, that these learned classifications do not enable us better to understand or appreciate the art of the royal ballet of Cambodia.
A few paragraphs taken from -the works of the best known of these Specialists are, however, one of the best ways of approaching .Khmer classical dancing. Jeanne Cuisinier should be quoted again “ Here is a Cambodian dancer; Seated or standing she remains stationary and will not leave her place for a considerable time. But a fluttering Spreads from her fingers to her hands, then her wrests. It travels the length of her arms but goes no further than her shoulders, which shake while her fingers continue to quiver. -. . To achieve this effect, the dancer makes her muscles contract and relax at the highest possible speed. ' Yet she neither advances nor retreats, nor does she rise or bend. Without the vibration of her flesh from fingers to shoulders she would be virtually immobile. A spectator forgets that she is not moving; for the onlooker, she is dancing. He forgets, too, that the narrowly localised mobility of the dance stems from an almost frenetic internal rapidity; all he sees is a figure performing a slow dance.”, Curt Sachs explains, although with far less precision, another movement similar to that just described. “During a mythological and highly stylized dance, the young dancer may stop, bend her legs and quiver in a slow undulating movement which seems to begin from one of her hands bent back at an acute angle. The supple movement undulates the length of her arm attains her other shoulder, raises her breast, continues down her other arm and fades away in a wing-like fluttering of her other hand. At this moment, her hip is thrust out and her stomach is pulled sharply in under the wealth of heavy pleats fanning above her knees in a brilliance of silk and metals”.
Was it necessary, though, to mention at the same time “a background of the somewhat convulsive dances found in the Austro Asiatic and Indian areas”?
Words alone can never suffice to describe or even to suggest movements as complex as those of the dance. And neither the artist’s pencil nor his sketch pad can satisfactorily reconstruct the Khmer dance, which is really indescribable.
The sketches made by Auguste Rodin of the royal dancers accompanying King Sisowath in Paris in 1906 are of hardly more value than a historical souvenir. The great sculptor, in fact, expressed his perplexity regarding a movement he did not know and saw as “a shaking of the body as it subsides”, in attempting to describe what he saw up to the moment of the dancers’ departure.
For its part, photography, which is able to express or suggest movement in“ the Western classical ballet, rarely produces anything better than an image of the plastic poses of the Cambodian dance, however admirable these may be. George Groslier clearly understood the reasons for this when he wrote: “These gestures usually lead up to a specific attitude held for a certain space of ' time whether the rhythm be slow or fast. This attitude, assumed on one of the beats of the choir’s clappers, gives place to the next after being maintained just long enough to be noticed, admired and lost sight of with regret.”
By definition, the screen should be the ideal medium for bringing a true picture of Khmer choreographical art to a wide audience. In fact, we have some excellent films which make priceless documents, but it has to be admitted that despite the large sets, the movements of the camera and the thousand and one devices used by film makers, a dance filmed from beginning to end seems long to the Spectator. This confirms that the Royal Ballet should be seen in the kind of magic aura which envelops it and, we would add, in its own particular setting, that of the dance performance hall at the Palace.
Keys to the Cambodian dance.
We do not claim in this article to give the non-Khmer spectator an immediate key to a cultural universe unknown and, to a large extent, closed to him. To a lesser degree, what we propose to do is to help him follow the dance more clearly and to appreciate certain of its subtleties. There will eventually be an article dealing with the legends and scenes most frequently enacted.
The best guide is unquestionably the late George Groslier, the only Westerner to have made a study of the Royal Ballet over a period of several years, so it is. from his absorbing pages about it that we shall draw most of our explanations of the gestures and attitudes of the Khmer dancers.
As we have already seen, a precise significance must not be sought for every gesture in Khmer dancing. The old ballet mistresses can cite at the most about thirty with their meanings; Undoubtedly the significance or symbolic value of many hand gestures and attitudes has faded from memory after centuries of transmission by word of mouth and practice alone. But we must repeat, this was because knowledge of them was not essential to the dance. Therefore, we shall merely give a glossary of the language of the dance as the Khmers see and understand it today.