By Steve Sucato
With roots tracing to the seventh century, The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is a unique link to Southeast Asia’s temple dances and mythic tales, as handed down for generations. With their rich, ornate costuming and headdresses, the dancers appear like ancient museum statues come to life. After seeing the company on a rare tour to France in 1906, sculptor Auguste Rodin declared, “I contemplated them in ecstasy.” The company of dancers, singers and musicians makes its Pittsburgh debut Nov. 7 at the Byham Theater in Stars of The Royal Ballet of Cambodia, part of the Cohen & Grigsby Trust Present series.
Choreographed by Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi — a former principal dancer with the company — the program showcases the company’s finest principal dancers in scenes recounting tales of good and evil, princes and princesses and mythological battles, in the Khmer classical dance style. With similarities to Indian classical dance, the Khmer style is characterized by intricate hand and foot movements performed at a slow, mesmerizing pace in which the dancers appear to float about the stage
Unlike continually evolving Western dance forms (from ballet and modern to hip hop), the Khmer style, and that of The Royal Ballet of Cambodia, has sought to maintain its traditional purity. It seeks to deliver the same hypnotic dance experience that it has for centuries
Also owing to tradition, female dancers perform both male and female roles, the dancers are barefoot, and the costumes have no buttons, hooks or clasps. The dancers are wrapped and sewn into them
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this style, however, are the dancers’ hand gestures (describing nature, flowers and fruit), characterized by outstretched open palms and fingers that appear unnaturally bent backward. It’s a skill that “takes a long time to master,” said principal dancer Chamroeuntola Chap by phone from Albuquerque, N.M., where the company was performing.
Chap, who entered the Royal Ballet’s Phnom Penh school when she was 7, says “the first three years were spent just learning how to stretch the fingers, legs and body.” That training included classes in which her bent-back fingers were wrapped with cotton to soften her joints; a procedure she described as painful but one that ultimately adds to the beauty of the ancient art form.
The Royal Ballet of Cambodia performs 8 p.m. Fri. Nov., 7; Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $20-45. 412-456-6666 or trustarts.org
This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper on November 5, 2014. Copyright Steve Sucato.