» Spirited away: the magic of the Apsara

Spirited away: the magic of the Apsara

Apsara Apsara dancers

Apsara dancing is a Khmer traditional dance form that was created to retell some of the tales depicted on the walls of the ancient Angkorian temples dating back to the time of the mighty Khmer Empire (9th to 15th centuries). It is believed that during its heyday over a million citizens lived in the vicinity of Angkor Wat (at a time when London had a population of less than 100,000), making it one of the largest pre-industrial cities in the world. As we can still see from the temples that remain today, the Khmer Empire was well advanced in technological terms, but they were also culturally advanced and the tales of the Apsara is a legacy from this period.

During the dark years of the Khmer Rouge from the late 1970’s until the early 1990’s, intellectuals and artists were sought out and killed, and it almost led to this dance form vanishing completely. Only a few dancers survived the Khmer Rouge period and following the liberation of the Cambodian people in the early 1990’s this group of survivors revived the tradition and Apsara dancing once again took its place as one of Cambodia’s signature cultural traditions.

I was fortunate to be introduced to the founder of one the top Apsara dance schools here in Siem Reap. This actually came about from a conversation I had with a meatseller in the local market. One day, during a chat with her, I mentioned that I am really fascinated by the Apsara dancing as well as its meaning and history. To my surprise she said that she also used to be a dancer and so, there I was a few weeks later at the house of the Apsara teacher where my friend from the market had brought me to make the introduction.

Teacher passing on her knowledge to the students Teacher and pupils keeping the tradition alive

The Apsara teacher and her group of students were very welcoming and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them practice their routines. To my surprises the teacher invited me to join them for two very special performances at one of the ancient temples in the Angkor Wat area. Her group is one of only a select few in Siem Reap that has the permission to perform at the ancient temples. Only a handful of hotels in town are able to book this venue for performances and I am quite sure it must be very, very expensive to attend one of these special events. I was indeed very fortunate to be invited to go with the group and take photos for them.

On the day of the event I arrived at the teacher’s house and I could definitely sense the excitement in the air. The group of performers (most of them between the ages of 15 and 21) are used to performing at many different venues, but a performance at the ancient temples is something very special: it is the hopes and dreams of any aspiring Apsara dancer to perform at the ancient Angkor Wat. Performing in the vicinity of Angkor Wat truly means going back to the spiritual roots of Apsara dancing. The word Apsara actually means ‘bright and beautiful women in paradise’ and the religious monuments of Angkor is obviously a very sacred place for the Khmer. For the performers, a performance at Angkor is about honoring the creators of the dance, retelling the stories from centuries ago, stories that are still relevant to this day: stories of love, stories of betrayal, stories of historical significance and stories expressing the daily lives of the people. It is also about preserving the identity of the Khmer and showcasing to the visitors from abroad the creativity and artistic prowess of this nation.

It was time to head over to the temples so I got in the back of the truck with 10 of the performers and we set out to Angkor Wat. As we drove through the 900 year old South gate of Angkor Tom temple I felt very privileged indeed. I am so fortunate to have been allowed to share this experience with the group of artisans. Sure, money can buy you a seat at the event itself, but to actually be invited to follow the journey of the dancers: watching them practice and prepare for their performance; to be there on the day seeing the excitement as they prepared for the evening and then to enter into the Ancient city in their midst was something very, very special.

We arrived at Thommanon temple at sunset. Seeing the temple in the early evening under the canopy of the huge trees that has been sheltering it for centuries, it felt like I was stepping back in time. The group of dancers walked ahead up to the ancient temple and it may as well have been a picture from centuries ago. Even the wall of the temple is decorated with carvings of the Srey Apsara (Apsara women): the 900 year old carvings were brought back to life in the form of the Apsara dancers that were now preparing to perform once again.

Apsara The setting was magical…

Apsara …and the temple provided the perfect backdrop

A beautiful evening set in and now the only sounds were coming from the creatures lurking in the forest: birds, insects and everything else that could make a sound were singing out in excitement, voicing their respects to the dancers in anticipation of what was coming.

The guests arrived and one could clearly tell that they were all left in awe as much as I was when I saw the venue: the temple was lit up by hidden spotlights and the dancers were strategically placed in the doorways and on the stairs leading into the ancient building. It was a moment frozen in time – we could well have been looking at an image from centuries before. Around and behind the temple the threatening jungle was now barely visible, swallowed by the night… the threat almost having dissipated and replaced by light and beauty.

A spellbinding performance followed: through their dancing, the Apsara told stories of love; betrayal; battles of the past; the end of the rainy season; growing of crops and many other tales. Each story was told with grace and elegance; subtleties’ and in other moments powerful, intense, dramatic; all to the tune of traditional music skillfully performed by a local group of musicians. We were mesmerized, taken on a journey into the hearts and culture of the Khmer, but perhaps something more: it is a human journey, because the underlying themes of each story told is something that affects all of mankind…

Apsara performance Apsara performance

One hour or so later we were brought back to reality as the journey came to an end for that evening, but the memory would certainly live on in the hearts of everyone of who were there to witness it.

It was time to go home. Driving back in the dark night, past the ancient temples at Angkor Thom, Bayon and finally Angkor Wat I still had the feeling of having stepped back in time. I could almost, just almost, visualize and feel what life must have been like in the Kingdom of Wonder all those centuries ago.

I really would like to thank the group for allowing me to spend this time with them. They are a beautiful group of young people led by a teacher that is passionate and proud of this Khmer tradition. I can see there is a strong bond between all of them and they should be immensely proud of their work. You represent your nation and you do so with such elegance. Thank you for making me feel so welcome in your family and home during the few days that I was allowed to watch you practice and perform. This memory will stay with me forever.

I will write a separate article about Apsara dancing: this article is just a personal reflection of a very special experience.

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