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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dancing Myths—The Legend of Apsara Mera

by Marina Harss

Photo: Andres Jiras

In accordance with the tradition of Cambodian classical dance, The Legend of Apsara Mera, in the Howard Gilman Opera House from May 2—4, begins with a tribute to the dance teachers, who transmit the steps from generation to generation, and to the spirits, whose earthly embodiment the dancers are meant to represent. This art, with its symbolism of survival and renewal, is rooted in the past and closely linked to the sacred. During the Khmer Empire (802—1431), when it was first developed, dancers were seen as intermediaries between the temporal and spiritual realms, living embodiments of the apsaras—or celestial dancers. Their likenesses, carved in bas-reliefs on temple walls, reveal poses recognizable even today. With serene, hieratic expressions, they tilt their heads and gaze out at the world. Their legs are bent in a soft plié, fingers curled back from their palms like flower petals. Their harmonious poses speak of an art that aspires to timeless transcendence and cosmic beauty.

Cambodian ballet reflects both the assimilation of external influences and the particularities of Khmer taste and belief. Its Hindu roots find expression in stories of gods and princes drawn from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana. But the Reamker’s accent is Khmer, reflecting a syncretic mix of Hinduism and Buddhist mythology and philosophy. Its epic battles and supernatural encounters can be read as a vast allegory of good and evil. (In this, its basic moral framework is not so far removed from that of Western ballets like The Sleeping Beauty.) Then there is the Thai influence: after the Siamese invasion of 1431 and the subsequent transfer of Khmer royal dancers to the court of Siam, Cambodian perfomers began to incorporate elements of Thai costume. These included brocade garments embroidered with gold and silver thread and sewn directly onto the bodies of the dancers, as well as the characteristic gold spire-shaped headdresses.

Nevertheless, Khmer dance retained its own quality, defined by “smoothness, balance, and the concentrated charm of whole curved lines,” in the words of master teacher Proeung Chhieng, a choreographic collaborator on The Legend of Apsara Mera. It is an art that eschews extremes—except in the magnificence of its costumes—and in which “modesty, grace and understatement are paramount and over-dramatization is regarded as distasteful,” Denise Heywood writes in her illustrated history Cambodian Dance. The dancers faces remain composed, their gaze soft; story and emotion are expressed in stylized mime, mainly for the hands. The extravagantly bent-back fingers imbue every gesture with an elegant, decorative quality. Meanwhile, the upper body floats above supple knees, the feet gently turned out (and toes curled up), hyper-extended arms pulsing slightly to the lilting strains of the orchestra. The pin peat, as this musical ensemble is known, is made up of xylophones, drums, oboes, and gongs, and accompanied by chanting. Each musician improvises and embroiders upon his melodic line, creating a gently chiming accompaniment to the dance.

The dance-drama The Legend of Apsara Mera was choreographed by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, considered by many to be the greatest Cambodian ballerina of her generation, in collaboration with the dance masters Chhieng and Soth Somaly. It fuses together two stories, the “Churning of the Sea of Milk” and the “Legend of Kambu and Mera.” The first is a Hindu creation myth; the story goes that gods and demons took part in a tug of war for dominion of the universe, whipping the cosmic ocean into a lather that produced, among other things, the rise of the beautiful apsaras. The other is a love story that doubles as Cambodia’s foundational myth. The queen of the apsaras, Mera, falls in love with the Sage Prince Kambu. Out of their love—and the fusion of their names—the Khmer kingdom is born.

These myths set the stage for battles, courtship scenes, and the comic antics of characters like the monkey-god Hanuman, recognizable from his oversized white mask and constant scratching. They also introduce one of the most magical set-pieces of Cambodian ballet: the Apsara Dance. A visual representation of celestial harmony, it recalls, among other things, the stirring synchronicity of the Western corps de ballet. It was one of the first dances to be brought back to life after the ballet’s near eradication under the Khmer Rouge, which ruled with homicidal brutality from 1975 to 1979. During this time nine out of 10 dancers were killed or died of starvation and exhaustion in labor camps. Costumes, instruments, and decorations were destroyed. After the Khmer Rouge fell, the dances had to be painstakingly recreated by the few dancers and dance masters who remained. Some were irretrievably lost.

Though the art still faces significant challenges, from the age of five children can once again receive training at government-run training centers, reopened in 1980. The tour is part of the citywide Season of Cambodia festival, which features performances of traditional and contemporary dance, music, and shadow puppetry plus film, visual arts, and humanities programs featuring works by and discussions with some of Cambodia’s leading artists and scholars. Given the central place of dance in the history of the Khmer people, these performances of The Legend of Apsara Mera are of particular significance. As Chhieng says, “dance is our national soul.”

Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer and translator in New York.
Originally published in the April 2013 BAMbill.


  1. Thanks for the articulate explanation of the sources for this dance. It will certainly add to my enjoyment of the performance this week.

  2. I like this blog Their legs are bent in a soft plié, fingers curled back from their palms like flower petals. Their harmonious poses speak of an art that aspires to timeless transcendence and cosmic beauty.
    Dance Academy in Panchkula


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