Infused with a sacred and symbolic role, the dance embodies the traditional values of refinement, respect and spirituality. Its repertory perpetuates the legends associated with the origins of the Khmer people. Consequently, Cambodians have long esteemed this tradition as the emblem of Khmer culture. Four distinct character types exist in the classical repertory: Neang the woman, Neayrong the man, Yeak the giant, and Sva the monkey. Each possesses distinctive colours, costumes, makeup and masks.The gestures and poses, mastered by the dancers only after years of intensive training, evoke the gamut of human emotions, from fear and rage to love and joy. An orchestra accompanies the dance, and a female chorus provides a running commentary on the plot, highlighting the emotions mimed by the dancers, who were considered the kings’ messengers to the gods and to the ancestors.
The Royal Ballet practically ceased to exist under the repressive rule of the Khmer Rouge, who eliminated almost all master dancers and musicians. Immediately after Pol Pot’s defeat in 1979, dance troupes re-emerged and performances of the ancient repertory resumed. The ballet has regained much of its former splendour but still faces numerous difficulties, such as a lack of funding and suitable performance spaces, competition from modern media and the risk of becoming a mere tourist attraction.
Inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)
© Text and images: UNESCO