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Interview: Princess Norodom Buppha Devi on the Royal Ballet of Cambodia

“My first duty is to revive the classical dance so it won't be lost or forgotten, and to film and record the dance, giving it as a memory to the future generations"

Written by
Olivia Lai

Despite having a turbulent history of genocide, poverty and famine, Cambodia remains a country full of rich history and culture. One shining example of this is the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Once a sacred dance, the Royal Ballet used to be exclusively for royalty and VIPs. Now, it's on the Unesco Intangible Heritage list and the dance has transformed into an important vehicle for cultural exchange. Luckily for Hong Kong, the elite troupe of 14 dancers, five musicians and three singers are performing at the Cultural Centre for the first time. Over two consecutive nights on August 25 and 26, they will don their stunning costumes and perform the elaborate yet delicate dances.

We speak to Princess Norodom Buppha Devi of Cambodia – the driving force behind reviving the Royal Ballet and taking the performance around the world – about the unique cultural heritage and what audiences can expect. 

Can you tell us about the history of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia?
At its origin, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia is a sacred dance performed to ask protection from the gods to bless the country and its people. It was the duty of the King to maintain this tradition and that is the reason why the Royal Ballet was under the patronage of the King and the royal family.

What would you say are most unique characteristics of the Royal Ballet of
The Royal Ballet is a very old tradition that can be dated back to the 12th century, maybe even before. You can see many Apsara representations carved on the wall of the iconic Angkor Wat Temple. The fact that this art form has survived through centuries is the reason why Unesco has registered the Royal Ballet of Cambodia to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003.

The Ballet is an incredibly elite troupe. What sort of training do they have?
Students start at a young age at around six to nine years old. Young girls have to learn almost 300 gestures and practice very hard to be a ballerina. The training is hard work. Girls who have a more petite physique tend to be trained to do female roles, while those who are taller and slim usually interpret masculine roles. 

The dance was previously exclusive to royalty and important dignitaries. How did it
evolve into a vehicle for cultural exchange?
Nowadays, everyone can be a Royal Ballet ballerina. It’s important that this art is accessible to the public. Classical dance is taught at the Royal University of Fine Arts and it gives the opportunity for Cambodian artists to dance and present their ancestral cultural heritage abroad. But my first duty is to revive the classical dance so it won't be lost or forgotten, and to film and record the dance, giving it as a memory to the future generations.

Can you talk about how the heritage was revived in the 1970s and why it’s important to do so?
After the dark period of our history, there were only 40 royal ballet dancers who survived. Before the war, we had almost 300 dancers, musicians and singers. That’s why when I was Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, I ensured teachers could recruit young girls to learn this art. As this form of dance is passed down through oral teaching, it could have easily disappeared if no immediate action was taken.

What can Hong Kong audiences expect from this performance and in return, what do you hope audiences can take away from the exchange?
I like visiting Hong Kong and I am very happy to bring the Royal Ballet to the city's Cultural Center. I hope that the public can discover a very old form of dance that doesn’t only belong only to Cambodians, but to the whole of humanity.

The troupe has performed in places like Marseille, New York and Monaco. What other cities are planned?
We will have a European Royal Ballet tour in May 2018. We are often invited to perform in France and I have to say, the French and European public have really shown their appreciation of my choreography.

What do you most look forward to on your visit to Hong Kong?
For this first visit, I will bring a small troupe of the Royal Ballet, but I really hope to bring a larger troupe to Hong Kong in the future.

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