It’s hard to escape the apsara in Siem Reap. The celestial nymph is everywhere we look. Clad in silk and a colossal golden headdress, she seductively adorns temple walls in the form of elaborate carvings, or in human form as a graceful and distant dancer performing the Dance of the Apsara Divinities.
The Apsara is strange, exotic and otherworldly. We see her intricately carved images, curvaceous and captivating, constantly as we clamber about Angkor Wat and the other temples. But no matter how many times we see the Apsaras, they never become familiar. They’re cold and aloof.
Researchers are divided as to the dance’s origins. Some claim it was a tradition from the Angkor period, when performers ritualistically danced at temples, ceremonies and funeral rites for the kings.
This is when they became known as apsaras, because in addition to serving as entertainers the celestial maidens were considered messengers to the divinities.
Other scholars claim the dance developed from Siamese classical dance, although any historical timeline will tell you which empire came first.
While still others argue that in the 19th century the Siamese taught the Cambodians the lost art form they preserved that they’d stolen when they repeatedly raided Angkor during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Because when the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya conquered Angkor, they took dancers, along with artisans and Brahmins, captive, and transported them back to Siam, now Thailand.
And there are obvious similarities between Thai and Cambodian classical dance, in the stories, choreography, movements, music, and costumes.
Traditionally, in Khmer classical dance, women play both female and male roles (the men play monkeys, horses and the like), and the only difference between them are the details of the elaborate costumes — both wear richly embroidered outfits, ornate headdresses, gem-encrusted jewellery, and fragrant flowers.
But even when the women are dressed as males — as the dancer is above who plays Preah-Ream (Prince Rama) from the Reamker, wearing the tall single spire crown, worn by male and female divinities of the highest rank — they are still alluring.
The complex gestures, steps and poses of the dance are slow, considered and stylized. The intensely choreographed movements are re-enactments of traditional tales, myths and poems, like the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.
But because I’m not familiar with the stories, I focus on the form of the dance itself.
It’s entrancing and the dancers are exquisite, although they’re difficult to warm to. I think it’s because the performers are so remote, so detached.
Their communication is contained. They look at us, but they don’t. So where are they looking, I wonder.
Can they see through me? Can they see into my soul? Is that their purpose? Do they have a message for me, I wonder.
An Apsara Show may be one of the most popular things to do in Siem Reap, but we love the Sacred Dancers of Angkor. Do try to see a performance if you can or visit The Conservatoire where they train at Banteay Srei.