There is a lesson to be learned from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia: that, no matter what, the arts will persevere. When this company tours, it is more than a respected dance troupe; it is a true symbol, much like a phoenix rising from the ashes, of its small southeastern Asia country that has been beleaguered over the centuries.
So when the troupe comes to the Byham Theater Friday as a special presentation of Cohen & Grigsby Trust, it will demonstrate not only the art of dance but the art of survival.
The ballet has recently served as an ambassador, performing its ritualistic dances for heads of state. It also served as a reminder of Cambodia’s attempt during the Vietnam War to remain neutral.
All along the Royal Ballet had been treading a fine line between heaven and earth. It was considered to have ties to the gods, but also served as a harem to Cambodian kings, the dancers restricted to palace grounds.
The company persevered while Cambodia was marked by inner turmoil and outside conflicts with other nations, most notably Thailand and France. The French controlled the country from 1864 to 1953, when Cambodia achieved independence. At one point, the French tried to disband the troupe, but a young King Sihanouk and his mother, Queen Kossamak, recognizing its political and spiritual importance, reinstated it. At that time, the queen codified and modernized the technique. Dancers moved out of the palace and into the city.
The company suffered a setback in 1975, when Cambodia was overtaken by the notorious Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Most of the company was killed in the genocide that followed. Those few who successfully hid among the people emerged in the 1980s to painstakingly reconstruct the company. Today it tours the world, led by Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, who serves as the company’s choreographer. In a tribute to the group’s importance in preserving the 1,000-year old Khmer dance style, UNESCO recognized the ballet as part of its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2003.
The Royal Ballet is known worldwide for its delicacy of style and nuance. The dancers stretch every morning into impossibly difficult poses, particularly hand gestures that are remarkable for their flexibility. Chamroeuntola Chap, one of eight female “stars” on the current U.S. tour, says it should feel “like you’re floating.” But she says it took years of training to achieve, including a stint at the university to learn the troupe’s history. . . . .