An apsara dance show is a priority for most visitors to Cambodia’s Siem Reap. The Sacred Dancers of Angkor, the original apsara dance performance, offers a more authentic experience in the form of an incredibly enchanting performance, as well as the chance to support the preservation of this ancient art form.
A precursor to the entertaining spectacle that is the apsara dance show, the Sacred Dancers of Angkor, whose performances begin with meditation and are inspired by the rituals of the Khmer Empire, is a must for lovers of dance, art and culture. Skip the buffet shows at Siem Reap hotels and witness a performance that is perhaps the closest thing to the original ancient tradition.
The Sacred Dancers of Angkor perform from 7-8pm on Sundays and Wednesdays at the Divine Sala, a beautiful stage behind the traditional wooden houses that serve as the headquarters of the Nginn Karet Foundation, just after Jaya House River Park hotel on the Siem Reap riverside. Bookings preferred and can be made by phone up until the performance. More details at the end of this post.
Update April 2018: the Sacred Dancers of Angkor will continue to perform from 7-8pm Sunday and Wednesday throughout the Khmer New Year holiday period.
Sacred Dancers of Angkor, the Authentic Apsara Show
When our tuk tuk driver drops us at the gate to Wat Damnak pagoda, the grounds are in darkness apart from the candles that illuminate the path to the hall where the Sacred Dancers of Angkor are to perform.
Terence and I are joining a small group of guests from the Amansara resort, along with a handful of Cambodian culture lovers, at the invitation of Ravynn Karet-Coxen, the founder of the Siem Reap-based Nginn Karet Foundation, the Sacred Dancers of Angkor, and the Conservatoire Preah Ream Bopha Devi dance school in Banteay Srei where the dancers study.
Sacred spirit lost to mass tourism
Soon after we’re seated on the wooden benches, an elderly woman lights incense at an alter set up at the centre of the stage in the dimly lit hall. Earlier that evening, the dancers and musicians had also made offerings, prayed and meditated before preparing for the performance we’re about to see.
When they appear before us the barefoot young dancers are dressed simply in elegant silk cotton costumes with coconut flowers adorning their wrists and ankles, their faces are scrubbed clean and tidy hair topped by crowns, hand-woven from natural fibres by the artists.
There is none of the heavy make-up and elaborate hair styling worn by the Apsara dancers who perform nightly in tourist shows in dozens of hotels and restaurants across Siem Reap. Nor is there a buffet dinner, the chatter of distracted tour groups, or the clinking of glasses and cutlery on plates that accompany most of the apsara shows.
Instead, the small attentive audience of 20 or so people get to focus on the precise, graceful movements of the serenely smiling dancers, and listen to the tinkling of the Cambodian xylophones played by the musicians seated on the floor, in an almost reverential silence as they might at a ballet, opera or theatre.
Ravynn Karet-Coxen believes this is the way that classical Khmer dance, or Cambodian ballet, or ‘apsara dancing’ as it’s commonly called, should be performed, because the Apsaras weren’t mere dancers, but were divinities, celestial beings, and messengers to the gods.
“This is how traditional Cambodian art should be appreciated,” Dara Huot, the CEO of Phare, the Cambodian Circus, who is seated next to me, says after the entrancing performance.
“I liked that the costumes are natural and the dancers are pure. They had emotion and soul,” Dara said. “We’ve lost a lot of this sacred spirit with mass tourism.”
Teaching a love of art before money
Ravynn founded the Nginn Karet Foundation as a charitable institution in 1994, with the main goal of meeting the basic needs of Banteay Srei’s poverty-stricken villagers by developing programmes focused on clean water, hygiene, health care, vaccination, nutrition, malaria awareness, agricultural training, education, and literacy.
Soon after, Ravynn established the dance school for the children of the families under the patronage of HRH Princess Buppha Devi, daughter of the late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk (whose mourning period we witnessed in 2012), and half-sister to King Norodom Sihamoni, who was a classical ballet teacher and cultural ambassador to UNESCO.
Made a principal dancer of the Cambodian Royal Ballet at 15 and prima ballerina at 18, the Princess is considered to be the first professional Apsara dancer, credited with taking Khmer ballet out of the palace pagoda, where it had been performed exclusively for royalty at ceremonies to honour gods and commemorate ancestors, to the public, showing the Cambodian people the dance for the first time.
The Sacred Dancers of Angkor are the only troupe of classical Cambodian ballet and folk dancers and musicians in the country with a spiritual dimension to their performance that reflects the religious significance of the temples near where they were born and train as artists.
“We trained the village children from nothing, teaching them to love their art first and excel,” Ravynn told me on the eve of the recent Wat Damnak performance. “We explained that this is the only way that money will come their way, but to love money first would make them struggle all their lives.”
“It is the only troupe in Cambodia who are dedicating genuinely and spontaneously – pure in body, soul and mind, without being paid – the sacred dance rituals and rites of propitiation to call on the gods and divinities to bless the land and empower their spiritual energy back into their own temple,” Ravynn said, revealing that the troupe had performed at thirty major Angkorian temples, as well as at temples in neighbouring countries.
“It is also the only troupe in Cambodia, apart from the University of Fine Arts, where artists train four days a week for four hours, and one day per week for the whole day,” Ravynn elaborated.
The students, aged between nine and 18 years old, undertake compulsory training in classical and folk repertoires, traditional music, weekly art classes to learn to draw and paint, and English lessons. In addition, 66 of the performers were ordained as monks and nuns for ten days in order to better understand spirituality and Buddhism.
This spiritual dimension is what sets the Sacred Dancers of Angkor apart from the troupes that perform nightly Apsara dance shows at hotels, restaurants and purpose-built theatres around Siem Reap, of which Ravynn is highly critical.
Dancers perform for as little as $2.50 a night
“In my opinion, it is devaluating the sacredness and the mystery of the Apsara,” Ravynn said. “It is terribly sad, as it seems to be for the most part a little mafia where dancers are only learning what they have to dance for their show in the restaurant. There is no emotion, nor profound respect for our ancient art.”
Ravynn said she felt the Apsara dancers were “like automatons”, performing to tourists more pre-occupied with their buffet dinners, “to earn their little daily money, enabling their organisers to enrich themselves.”
“These youngsters all have (other) jobs and hop on their motos with their crowns in their backpack to go and perform their show without the respect due to an empowered crown,” she lamented.
Ravynn is also critical of the organisers of the Apsara shows for their lack of ethics and poor treatment of performers, calling for more strict controls on the quality of performance and regulations that force organizers to pay performers fairly and support their proper training.
“This would force the organiser to give their artists the time and effort to train them properly and pay them a better rate than $2.50 a night,” she said, adding that dancers also have to cover their own food and transport.
While Ravynn acknowledged that there had been some progress made with the introduction of an annual exam for Apsara dancers and a requirement for organisers to obtain licences to hold shows before the exam, she is critical of the rush by performers to practice just to get the license and that not all the repertoires being performed are tested.
But it is the context of the performance above all that upsets her.
Turning something precious into a commodity
“Having a show in a restaurant in front of people eating, drinking and talking is to me a total lack of respect toward an art renowned as sacred,” Ravynn said, suggesting that it was demoralising for serious artists, and pointing out that classical ballet dancers in the West would never perform Giselle in a restaurant for so little money.
“Frankly, in my opinion, it is devaluing the sacredness of the Apsara,” Ravynn said, “Turning something so precious into a mere commodity. The Apsara dancers have to inspire an aura of mystery as if emerging from the stones.”
“I’m against Apsara shows during noisy buffets,” he tells me. “The dancers are paid terribly, as little as $1 a night. How can we expect them to perform with dedication and how can we expect tourists to appreciate our celestial dancers if they are terrible?”
While Ravynn would never allow the Sacred Dancers of Angkor to perform during a buffet dinner for dozens of tour groups, she is currently busy planning exclusive events, tours and activities to showcase the excellence of the Sacred Dancers of Angkor.
Raising funds to preserve the art form
Ravynn said the Sacred Dancers of Angkor are now ready to offer “absolutely magnificent full-length performances” of the kind that have been enchanting guests at temples in Cambodia and Laos and on stages in the USA where they toured in 2014.
The activities are key elements in a fund-raising campaign Ravynn has launched to raise money to support the Sacred Dancers of Angkor and preserve the art form.
She hopes to persuade individual donors and entities, including high-end travel companies, to support the dance troupe and raise enough to pay each young Cambodian dancer a salary of $80 per month for a year so they can focus on their art.
As the first dance and music conservatoire in a rural area, and the only one in the UNESCO World Heritage listed archaeological site of Banteay Srei, Ravynn admitted that it had been a real challenge to get to where they are.
While it had so far been a success story, Ravynn said that success would not have come if they didn’t invest 15 years of development work empowering the 2,769 families in the 14 villages with a sustainable and dignified livelihood.
Poverty a threat to the future of sacred dance
Yet poverty remains one of the biggest threats to the future of the dance troupe and the school.
“They are so destitute,” Ravynn revealed. “And as adolescents they feel morally obliged to help their parents, who do not understand the sacrifice in allowing their children to train regularly in order to reach excellence, but also to have under their belt many full length repertoires to be able to give performances on international stages.”
Of the 176 dancers and musicians attending the school, Ravynn said there are currently only 80 and their presence is “on and off”. Sadly, many have been lured by unscrupulous agents to Thailand to work illegally on construction sites for $1 an hour, for ten hours a day.
“So here again we’re confronted with a situation where the need for money is so high that they just, against their will and with heavy hearts, leave,” Ravynn lamented.
“Some come back after a while, but with their morale completely broken.”
Ravynn admitted that, like a mother-hen, she would never abandon her babies. However, if the dance troupe were to disintegrate, so too would the pride of the young performers – along with her own dream of creating a sustainable future for the artists in which they’re performing for a fair income to an appreciative audience.
Ravynn worries that if lost, no one will revive the art form.
Protecting the delicate legacy of a culture
“We are striving to protect, promote and perpetuate the delicate legacy of our culture,” Ravynn explained. “I believe in the talent of the Sacred Dancers to be great ambassadors of the land of Angkor – an intangible heritage supporting the tangible heritage.”
“This is unique,” said Khmer-American Kunthary de Gaiffier, who was in the audience at the Wat Bo Pagoda performance. “The dancers are very creative and extremely spiritual.”
Kunthary revealed she became smitten with the troupe after she first saw them perform at the temples and had been further impressed with how humble they were on their USA tour when they slept at pagodas.
Soon after retiring from a 34-year career at the World Bank in Washington, Kunthary joined the Foundation Board as a Trustee and has come to Cambodia to assist Ravynn with the fund-raising campaign.
As we speak outside after the performance, we watch the young dancers and musicians pile into the back of an old open truck for the hour-long ride back to Banteay Srei. But first they’ll eat something at Ravynn’s traditional timber riverside house that serves as the Foundation’s office. We’re invited to join them but unfortunately we can’t.
“I want to do something to help,” Kunthary tells me, before leaving. “What they do is so beautiful. It must be preserved.”
This is artistry that should be supported
I couldn’t help but agree after watching the mesmerising performance. While there’s no denying the abilities of the countless Apsara dancers who perform nightly in Siem Reap, the Sacred Dancers of Angkor are special.
There is an authenticity to their performance that enables you to travel back in time and imagine yourself as a fly on the wall at a ceremony during the Khmer Empire in a way that’s not always possible at the sometimes-rowdy dinner shows.
“I appreciate what Madame Ravynn is doing, by asking us to show respect,” Dara told me. “The Sacred Dancers should be treated with respect.”
“This is not dinner entertainment,” Dara elaborated. “The Apsaras are celestial beings and messengers of the gods. This is artistry. It should be supported.”
Where to See the Sacred Dancers of Angkor
Performances in Siem Reap
The Sacred Dancers of Angkor perform from 7-8pm every Sunday and Wednesday at the Divine Sala at the traditional wooden houses that serve as the headquarters of the Nginn Karet Foundation, 234 River Road, Treang Village, Siem Reap. They also offer a special performance and dinner package that includes a wonderful multi-course gourmet tasting menu at Mie Cafe, one of Siem Reap’s finest restaurants. Phone 012 77 2641 to book tickets (US$30) or email firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out about special performances and events (or donate to the Sacred Dancers of Angkor) contact Ravynn Karet-Coxen via the Foundation’s website www.nkfc.org or Facebook page: Banteay Srei Hidden Treasure NKFC Sacred Dancers of Angkor.
Amansara is the only Siem Reap resort where the troupe performs with any frequency. A limited number of outside visitors can attend, which also provides a rare peek at this exclusive resort, usually closed to non-guests.
Visit the Conservatoire at Banteay Srei
To visit the Conservatoire, where the dancers train and rehearse, just a stone’s throw from Banteay Srei temple, is a very special experience. Visits are by appointment only as arrangements must be made in advance. Email email@example.com
Attend the Annual Gala Dinner
If you’re in Siem Reap between Christmas and New Year, the Sacred Dancers and musicians usually perform a moving ritual connecting the spiritual dancers to the Divinities of the Temple, followed by a rare full-length classical repertoire, The Legend of the Genesis of Cambodia or Preach Thong Neang Neak at an exclusive Gala Dinner at one of the enchanting temples. We attended a beautiful performance at Thommanon Temple including cocktails, canapes and a 4-course menu. Funds raised from tickets (usually around US$225) are used to support and promote the dancers and help sustain their livelihood. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more if you are planning on being in Siem Reap over the holidays in 2018.
UPDATED: January 2018