Royal ballet of Cambodia

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.

The Royal ballet of Cambodia (Khmer: ល្ខោនព្រះរាជទ្រព្យ) is a form of performing arts established in the royal courts of Cambodia for the purpose of entertainment as well as ceremonial propitiation.[1] It is the dominant genre of dance theatre in Cambodia that features the classical dance style (របាំក្បាច់បូរាណ) and is analogous to Thai dance theatre of the inner court, the lakhon nai.[2]

It is performed during public occasions and ceremonies in Cambodia as well as among Cambodians in other countries.[unver. 1] Performances entails elaborately dressed dancers performing a slow and figurative set of gestures and poses meant to entrance the viewer. The repertoire includes dances of tribute or invocation and the enactment of traditional stories and epic poems such as the Ramayana. The music is played by an ensemble of xylophones, metallophones, woodwind instruments, drums, and gong chimes accompanied by a chorus.


Western names for this dance tradition often make reference to the royal court; including Cambodian court dance as it was performed and maintained by the attendants of the royal palaces.[3][4] As a performing art, it is formally referred to as the Royal ballet of Cambodia (and as Le ballet royal du Cambodge in French) by UNESCO, Cravath, Brandon, and others in the academic field;[5][6][7] although this term may also refer to the royal ballet as a corps, the National Dance Company of Cambodia. The term "Khmer classical dance" is also used alongside "Royal Ballet of Cambodia" in the publications by UNESCO and mentioned authors.[5]

In Khmer, it is formally known as Robam Preah Reach Trop (របាំព្រះរាជទ្រព្យ, lit. dances of royal wealth) or Lakhon Preah Reach Trop (ល្ខោនព្រះរាជទ្រព្យ, lit. theatre of royal wealth).[unver. 2] It is also referred to as Lakhon Luong (ល្ខោនហ្លួង, lit. the king's theatre).[8][9] During the Lon Nol regime of Cambodia, the dance tradition was referred to as Lakhon Kbach Boran Khmer (ល្ខោនក្បាច់បូរាណខ្មែរ, lit. Khmer theatre of the ancient style), a term alienating it from its royal legacy.[9][10]

Khmer classical dancers, as a whole, are frequently referred to as apsara dancers by laymen; in the modern sense, this usage would be incorrect in the present-form of the dance as the apsara is just one type of character among others in the repertoire. Regardless, the romanticized affiliation of Royal Ballet of Cambodia with the apsaras and devatas of the ruins of Angkor still persists.


Angkorian style dancing figures from the 10th century.
The kinnari dancers of King Sisowath at the 1906 Colonial Exposition in Marseilles.

The origins of Khmer classical dance in the style seen today are disputed. Cambodian scholars, such as Pech Tum Kravel, and French scholar George Groslier have claimed Khmer classical dance as a tradition maintained since the Angkor period.[11] Other scholars theorize that Khmer classical dance, as seen today, developed from, or was at least highly influenced by, Siamese classical dance innovations during the 19th century and precedent forms of Cambodian dance were different from the present form.[12] According to James R. Brandon, the lakhon nai of Siam was the main influence on Cambodian court dance in the 1800s.[13] Martin Banham also mentions performers from Thailand were brought to restructure the dance tradition for the royal court of Cambodia during the same period.[14] Indeed, there were Siamese performers in the royal court of Cambodia during the 19th century according to most renowned sources on the royal ballet, Groslier included; this suggests a strong connection to the court dances of Siam and its influences.[11] Sasagawa mentions Groslier's acknowledgement of Siamese performers in the royal dance troupe and also mentions Norodom Sihanouk claim that the Siamese 'taught Cambodia its lost art form which they had preserved after sacking Angkor,' however, Sasagawa notes that the Siamese innovations (such as the story of Inao, an adaptation of the Malay version of Panji[15] ) were not present in the Angkorian dance tradition.[11]

Angkor and Pre-Angkor Era

One of the earliest records of dance in Cambodia is from the 7th century, where performances were used as a funeral rite for kings.[16] In the 20th century, the use of dancers is also attested in funerary processions, such as that for King Sisowath Monivong. During the Angkor period, dance was ritually performed at temples.[9] The temple dancers came to be considered as apsaras, who served as entertainers and messengers to divinities.[17] Ancient stone inscriptions, describe thousands of apsara dancers assigned to temples and performing divine rites as well as for the public.[9] The tradition of temple dancers declined during the 15th century, as the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya raided Angkor. When Angkor fell, its artisans, Brahmins, and dancers were taken captive to Ayutthaya.[9]

Post-Angkor Era

In the 19th century, King Ang Duong, who had spent 27 years as a captive prince in the Siamese court in Bangkok (i.e. the Grand Palace), restructured his royal court in Cambodia with Siamese innovations from the Rattanakosin period. Court dancers under the patronage of the royal court of Siam were sent to the royal court in Cambodia during this period.

French Colonial Era

Dancers of the court of King Sisowath were exhibited at the 1906 Colonial Exposition in Marseilles at the suggestion of George Bois, a French representative in the Cambodian court.[18] Auguste Rodin was captivated by the Cambodian dancers and painted a series of water colors of the dancers. George Groslier, the French-colonial director of the Phnom Penh Musée Sarraut (today the National Museum), had 're-invented' large parts of the ballet through his studies of the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat.[19]

Post-Independent Cambodia

Queen Sisowath Kossamak became a patron of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Under the Queen's guidance, several reforms were made to the royal ballet, including choreography. Dance dramas were dramatically shortened from all-night spectacles to about 1 hour length.[11] Prince Norodom Sihanouk featured the dances of the royal ballet in his films.

The dance tradition received a detriment during the Khmer Rouge regime during which many dancers were put to death in the genocide.[unver. 3] Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished between 1975 and 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, those who did survive wandered out from hiding, found one another, and formed "colonies" in order to revive their sacred traditions.[unver. 4] Khmer classical dance training was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Many dances and dance dramas were also recreated at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Cambodia.

In 2003 it was inducted into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.


The Royal Ballet of Cambodia at curtain call (Paris, France 2010).

During the era of the French Protectorate of Cambodia and before, it was customary for guests of the royal palace to receive a performance of the royal ballet.[18] In propitiation ceremonies (បួងសួង, buong suong), it was performed at Wat Phnom and the Silver Pagoda and Throne Hall of the Royal Palace.[unver. 5] For entertainment, performances were often staged inside the pavilions of royal palaces.[18] In Phnom Penh, the Moonlight Pavilion was built for and is still used occasionally for classical dance performances. Nowadays, venues for performances by the Royal Ballet includes the Chenla Theatre and the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, designed by architect Vann Molyvann during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era.[unver. 6] Tourist restaurants in Cambodia, notably in Siem Reap, also serve as venues for classical dance performances by amateur troupes.[unver. 7]

Stage and Props

The traditional stage for classical dance drama performances contains a table with a decorative pillow and sometimes laid on an Oriental rug or carpet.[unver. 8] This table of low stature, called a krae (គ្រែ, lit. bed), is constant throughout the performance and thus is used as a prop that represents many places and things (a bed, a throne, living quarters, etc.).[unver. 9]

In many dance dramas, characters often wield weapons such as bows, swords, staves, and clubs.[unver. 10] In some dances, dancers hold items such as flower garlands, fans, and gold and silver flowers as a tribute (see bunga mas).[unver. 11] Performance of robam makar (the makara dance) entails devas dancing in leisure and using fans to represent the scales of the mythical makara while the goddess Manimekhala leads on this mimicry with her crystal ball of magic.[unver. 12]

A scene from the Reamker; a battle between Rama and Ravana performed in the courtyard of the Silver Pagoda, c. 1900s~1920s.

Movement and gestures

Khmer classical dancers use stylized movements and gestures to convey meaning and tell a story. These gestures are often vague and abstract while some may be easily understood. Dancers do not sing or generally speak except for some dance dramas where there are brief instances of speech by the dancers.

Hand gestures in Khmer classical dance are called kbach (meaning style). These hand gestures form a sort of alphabet and represent various things from nature such as fruit, flowers, and leaves. They are used in different combinations and transitions with accompanying movement of the legs and feet, to convey different thoughts and concepts.[9] The way in which they are presented, the position of the arm, and the position of the hand relative to the arm can also affect their meaning. Gestures are performed in different manners depending on the character type.


Princess Buppha Devi performs a propitiation dance (c. 1965) as a neang rong. Note the dancers of lower ranks (philieng) in obeisance.

Four main types of roles exist in Khmer classical dance; neay rong (male), neang (female), yeak (ogres or asuras), and the sva (monkeys).[20] These four basic roles contain sub-classes to indicate character rank; a neay rong ek, for example, would be a leading male role and a neang kamnan (or philieng) would be a maiden-servant.[20] The sub-classes of the four main roles all perform in the same type of dancing style of the class they belong to. However, the yeakheney, or female ogre, is performed with a feminized dancing style of the male counterpart. Other female character types, such as the apsara, kinnari, or mermaid, follow the same dancing style as the neang role but with subtle differences in gestures; the main difference being costume. The ngoh character type, although male, is presented with a different dancing style than the neay rong.

In the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, most roles are performed by female dancers, but the role of monkeys was transferred to men under the guidance of Queen Sisowath Kosssamak. Other roles performed by men include hermits and animals such as horses and mythical lions.

<templatestyles src="Div col/styles.css"/>



Classical dance costumes are highly ornate and heavily embroidered, sometimes including sequins and even semi-precious gems. Most of the costumes is thought to be what is representative of what divinities wear, this is reflected in the art style of the post-Angkor period. Various pieces of the costume (such as shirts) have to be sewn onto the dancers for a tight fit.

Dancers dressed as Sita (neang role) and Ravana (yeak role).

Female costume

The typical female, or neang costume consists of a sampot sarabap (or charabap); a type of woven fabric with two contrasting silk threads along with a metallic thread (gold or silver in color). The sampot is wrapped around the lower body in a sarong-like fashion, then pleated into a band in the front and secured with a gold or brass belt. In the current style, part of the pleated brocade band hangs over the belt on the left side of the belt buckle, which is a clear distinction from Thai classical dance costumes where this pleated band is tucked into the belt to the right of the belt buckle. Worn over the left shoulder is a shawl-like garment called a sbai (also known as the robang khnang, literally 'back cover'), it is the most decorative part of the female costume, embroidered extensively with tiny beads and sequins; the usual embroidery pattern for the sbai these days is a diamond-shaped floral pattern, but in the past there were more variations of floral patterns. Under the sbai is a silk undershirt or bodice worn with a short sleeve exposed on the left arm. Around the neck is an embroidered collar called a srang kar.

Jewelry of the female role includes a large, filigree square pendant of which is hung by the corner, various types of ankle and wrists bracelets and bangles, an armlet on the right arm, and body chains of various styles.

File:Royal dancer pierre dieulefils.jpg
A female dancer dressed as the male Negrito character Chao Ngoh, c. 1909.

Male costume

Male characters wear costumes that are more intricate than the females, as it requires pieces, like sleeves, to be sewn together while being put on. They are dressed in a sampot sarabap like their female counterpart, however it is worn differently. For the male, or neay rong, the sampot is worn in the chang kben fashion, where the front is pleated and pulled under, between the legs, then tucked in the back and the remaining length of the pleat is stitched to the sampot itself to form a draping 'fan' in the back. Knee-length pants are worn underneath displaying a wide, embroidered hem around the knees. For the top, they wear long sleeved shirts with rich embroidering, along with a collar, or srang kar, around their neck. On the end of their shoulders are a sort of epaulette that is arching upwards like Indra's bow (known as inthanu). Another component of the male costumes are three richly embroidered banners worn around the front waist. The center piece is known as a robang muk while the two side pieces are known as a cheay kraeng, while for monkeys and yaksha characters, they wear another piece in the back called a robang kraoy.

Male characters also wear an x-like strap around the body called a sangvar, often it is made of gold-colored silk and sometimes it is made from chains of gold with square ornaments, in which case the latter is reserved for more important characters. The males also wear the same ankle and wrist jewelry as the female, but with the addition of an extra set of bangles on the wrist and no armlets. They also wear a kite-shaped ornament called a sloek po (named after the Bo tree leaf) which serves as center point for their sangvar.


There are several types crowns which denote the ranks of the character. Commonly worn by female characters of the lowest rank is the kbang; it is also worn by Brahmin characters with ornaments around a bun of hair. Divinities and royal characters of the highest ranks wear a tall single-spire crown called a mokot ksat for male characters and a mokot ksatrey for female characters. The panchuret (Groslier romanizes this as panntiereth), reserved for princes and generals (sena), is a circlet-like crown with a faux knot in the back. The rat klao is worn by princess' and, often, maidens of significance in a dance if they happen to not be of royal rank. Some characters' headdressings include ear ornaments as well as earrings. Characters such as ogres and monkeys wear masks. Ogres and monkeys of royal rank wear masks with a mokot attached.

Floral adornments

Dancers are traditionally adorned with fragrant flowers, although sometimes, fresh flowers are substituted with faux flowers. The floral tassel is traditionally made of Jasminum sambac strung together with Michelia flowers, being either Michelia × alba or Michelia champaca. The neang (female) role wears a rose above the right ear and a floral tassel attached to the left side of the crown while the neay rong (male) role wears a rose on the left ear and a floral tassel to the right side. Sometimes, dancers will wear jasmine garlands fit for the wrists. The apsara role is most often adorned with the flowers of either Plumeria obtusa or white cultivars of Plumeria rubra; sometimes plumerias are tied along the back of their hair.


See main article; Pinpeat

The music used for Khmer classical dance is played by a pinpeat ensemble. This type of orchestra consists of several types of xylophones, drums, oboes, gongs, and other musical instruments. The chorus consists of several singers and mainly sing in the absence of music. The lyrics are in poetry form and are sung interspersed with the grammatical particles eu [əː], eung [əːŋ], and euy [əːj] in various patterns.

Music instruments

<templatestyles src="Div col/styles.css"/>


Music pieces

Khmer classical dance uses a particular piece of music for a certain event, such as when a dancer enters a scene, performing certain actions, such as flying, or walking, and when leaving the stage. These musical pieces are arranged to form a suite. New pieces of music are rarely created.

Below is a select list of music pieces used in the repertoire

  • Sathukar : (សាធុការ) a song of blessing used for propitiation, often used to commence a performance
  • Krao nai : (ក្រៅណៃ), also known as santheuk knong (សន្ធឹកក្នុង), overture of the yeak (ogre) characters, a display of power as they go into combat or battle
  • Smaeu : (ស្មើ) used for the introduction of a character or a group of dancers in a scene
  • Lea : (លា) used to present a character's departure of the scene; leaving the stage
  • Cheut chhing : (ជើតឈិង) lit., euphonic chhing; music characterized by the constant percussion of drums and small cup-shaped cymbals;[unver. 13] used to present an action such as commencing a journey or flying
  • Lo : (លោ) music used in tune with aquatic recreation (e.g. dancers miming the action of rowing a boat)
  • Long song mon : (លងស៊ងមន) lit., royal bathing of the Mon; a song used to represent a character dressing up their appearance
  • Phya deun : (ផ្យាឌើន); also known as ponhea daeur (ពញ្ញាដើរ), a music piece used to present dancers marching (e.g. the beginning of robam tep monorom)
  • Klom : (ក្លុម) used to show the grace and beauty of a character wielding his weapon
  • Sinuon : (ស៊ីនួន) - lit., 'cream color' in reference to complexion, a soft and slow feminine melody
  • Salamar : (សលមារ) - a music characterized by the sralai, often used for certain actions such as combat, but not limited to such
  • Preah Thong (ព្រះថោង)
  • Bao Lut (បោលុត)
  • Sarak Burong (សរៈប៊ុរង)
  • Balim (បលិម)


According to The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre (1997) the Royal Ballet's repertoire contained approximately 40 dances and 60 dance dramas. Since the restoration of the Royal Ballet in the 1979, some of the old repertoire was recreated and several new dances were also created, most notably robam monosanhchettana by the late Chea Samy. As of recent years, new dance dramas have been created by the Royal Ballet, such as Apsara Mera. Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has also introduced new repertory to Khmer classical dance although they are not part of the traditional royal repertoire and mainly have been performed in Western venues. Her works include dramas such as Samritechak, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello and Pamina Devi, an adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Dance Dramas

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia's repertoire of dance dramas (រឿង, roeung) consists of a myriad of stories unlike the lakhon khol which is limited only to the Ramayana. Many of the dance dramas have analogs in the lakhon nai dance genre of Thailand but do not share the same choreography or exact storyline. During the time of Queen Kossamak, several dance dramas were re-choreographed and shortened such as Roeung Preah Thong-Neang Neak; this drama would later be recreated again in 2003 among others.

The plot of many dance dramas are often that of a male character who rescues a damsel in distress or of destined love presented with obstacles. The traditional repertoire portrays mythology, traditional tales and may sometimes include religious concepts such as karma.

A dance of tribute used in a dance drama titled Preah Ket Mealea, circa 1965.

Select repertory of dance dramas

<templatestyles src="Div col/styles.css"/>



In contrast to the dance dramas are shorter dances known as robam. They can serve several purposes such as honoring, ritualistic functions (e.g. securing the kingdom's fortune and prosperity), and blessing. Spanning about several minutes or so, these dances do not all have storylines. Although many robam are indeed excerpts from dances dramas such as robam mekhala-reamso and robam sovan macchha (the latter being from the Reamker).

The 'apsara dance' of today was created under the guidance of Queen Kossamak Nearireath. Its costume is based on the bas-relief of apsaras on temple ruins but much of it, including its music and gesture is not unique from other classical Khmer dances which probably do not date back to the Angkor period.

Select repertory of dances

<templatestyles src="Div col/styles.css"/>



<templatestyles src="Div col/styles.css"/>




External images
image icon Two dancers perform as a garuda and kinnari couple. 1928)
image icon A pair of dancers sit on a krae. (1931).
image icon Ravana with Sita in his captive. (1928)
image icon A dancer sits on the krae above two servants. (1928)
image icon A dance of propitiation depicting the sea goddess Manimekhala. (2006)
image icon Dancers perform for King Sihamoni's coronation. (2004)


  • Cravath, Paul (2008). Earth in Flower - The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama, DatAsia Press
  • Groslier, George et al. (2011). Cambodian Dancers - Ancient and Modern, DatAsia Press
  • Heywood, Denise (2009). Cambodian Dance Celebration of the Gods, River Books
  • Loviny, Christophe (2003). The Apsaras of Angkor, Sipar: Jazz Editions


  • Meyer, Charles (2009). Saramani: Cambodian Dance, DatAsia Press
  • Lee, Jeanne M. (1994). Silent Lotus, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Lord, Michael (2006). Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin, Lee & Low Books

Selected Discography

  • Musical Sources – Royal Music Of Cambodia (1971) by Jacques Brunet; contains a condensed recording of the Buong Suong dance drama featuring the goddess Manimekhala
  • Homrong: Classical Music From Cambodia (2004) by Chum Ngek; contains music pieces and suites used by the royal ballet

See also




Notes in this section are referenced from the bibliography above.

  1. Cravath 1968
  2. Cravath 2008 Cravath makes several references to lakhon nai in Earth in Flower
  3. Banham 1995, p. 154, "performers were wives, concubines, and relatives of the ruler"
  4. Brandon 1967, p. 59 'Cambodian court dance'
  5. 5.0 5.1 UNESCO
  6. Cravath 1968, mentions a variation; 'Royal Cambodian Ballet
  7. Brandon 1967, mentions 'Royal Cambodian Ballet'
  8. Cravath; romanized as lakhon lueng (king's dancers)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Fletcher 2001, p. 306
  10. Sasagawa 2005, p. 437
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Sasagawa 2005
  12. Brandon 1967, pg. 20
  13. Brandon pg. 64
  14. Banham 1995
  15. Banham 1995 p. 1076, Circa 1760, two Thai princesses learned of this story from their Malay servants and wrote their own versions. It eventually became the premiere story of the lakhon nai.
  16. Brandon 1967, p. 20
  17. Becker 1998, p. 330
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Jacobsen, p. 156
  19. Falser 2013
  20. 20.0 20.1 Bois, p. 4

Unverified Notes

Notes in this section reference material produced by laymen or reference material not generally considered a legitimate source on the subject matter at hand. They are unverified and not peer-reviewed.

  1. Public performances of Cambodian classical dance occasionally makes occurrences in Cambodian news and Western news outlets as photographs and video footage. See for example, editorial photographs on Norodom Sihamoni's coronation at <>.
  2. UNESCO mentions lakhaon preah reach troap, while it is also written as 'របាំព្រះរាជទ្រព្យ' (robam preah reach trop) on websites of the government of Cambodia including the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. For example, see:<>
  3. Cambodian Royal Court Dancing;. Retrieved July 21, 2007.[dead link]
  4. Alliance for California Traditional Arts Classical Cambodian Dance Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and Socheata Heng. Retrieved July 21, 2007. Archived July 8, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  5. This can be noted in vintage photographs and film. UNESCO's video presentation of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia depicts a modern-day propitiation ceremony at Wat Phnom.
  6. These venues are mentioned on news reels on Cambodian news programs. See this article for an example:
  7. This can be seen in many photographs posted on Flickr and videos on Youtube. Restaurants include 'Jasmine Angkor' and 'Koulen'. Canby Publications has a section on this at <>.
  8. As seen in this photograph: <> and as depicted in other photographs and video.
  9. Cravath romanizes this term as kré. In the photo of the Reamker File:Cambodian dance Reamker.png, parts of the krae can be seen behind the main group of dancers.
  10. This is notable in many media provided by laymen online as well as photos provided in this article. See which shows the dance drama Preah Samut and characters wielding bows and staves.
  11. See [File:Cambodian_Classical_Dance_of_Tribute.ogv] as an example where dancers hold gold flowers as a tribute.
  12. As seen in the Khmer classical dance video posted on this webpage: <> and many others.
  13. Robert K. Headley 1997, Cambodian-English Dictionary

External links

General information

Image galleries