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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Friends of BAM Learn About the Royal Ballet of Cambodia's Dazzling Costumes

by Sarah Mischner

Sylvain Lim. Photo: Elena Olivo
Anyone who attended the Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s The Legend of Apsara Mera last week will admit to being dazzled by the ornate costumes worn by the dancers. Friends of BAM gathered in the Hillman Studio for an afternoon reception and discussion on these costumes given by fashion and costume designer Sylvain Lim.

Lim, a native Cambodian who lived in Paris for more than 30 years and worked in fashion houses including Dior and Balmain, described the history of the costumes and their construction—a process that has barely changed since the 11th century.

Costumes in Cambodian ballet consist of pieces of raw silk or velvet brocade, stitched with thick spring-like coils of golden threads, metalwork, and sequins or beads to catch the light. It can take one person five months to create one costume, or four people can make a single costume in a month with three people doing the intricate embroidery. The costumer works up to the moment a dancer goes onstage; the dancers are sewn into their costumes. (Those dancers playing male roles often can’t use the bathroom for up to 4 hours.) As Lim explained, the Royal Ballet dancers' costumes are stitched tightly to their bodies, which helps them make the shapes of the deliberate choreography.

Another aspect of the costume is the headdress. From paper-mâché masks to represent the giants of Cambodian legend, to the crowns and headdresses for the gods and the princes and princesses, everything is gilded. A dancer may wear a several-pound metal headdress, in addition to the pieces sewn to her costume or her jewelry. When Lim was a young dancer, he practiced moving with several bricks on his head to get the feel for moving with the weight of a crown!

One of struggles that Sylvain Lim faces is how to preserve these costumes and continue the tradition. Fewer people make the high quality of materials needed for these costumes, so restoring these pieces is becoming more difficult. With no real apprentice, there is a lingering question: who will take up the costume design and maintenance after Lim? For now he is satisfied to have played his role in revitalizing the costumes. As he explained, the Cambodian people need their traditions and he is doing his part to preserve them.

Friends of BAM are avid BAM supporters whose contributions go towards funding innovative and exciting art like the Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s recent presentation, and receive invitations to members-only events like this conversation. For more information visit or call 718.636.4194.

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