Khmer classical dance was born as a form of ritual prayer among the sandstone temples of ancient Angkor (9th-15th centuries C.E.). Nurtured in the court as a form of entertainment for centuries, new non-narrative dances became emblems of Cambodia’s newfound nationalism in the wake of the country’s 1953 independence from French colonial rule. During the reign of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), the dance was banned and most of its practitioners died of disease, overwork, starvation and slaughter. In the aftermath, surviving artists in Phnom Penh struggled to rebuild the tradition as part of the newly formed Department of Performing Arts and the reopened School of Fine Arts. Outside of Cambodia, refugees in camps along the Thai border practiced and performed the dance and brought it with them to the communities where they resettled, including those in the U.S.A., France, Canada and Australia. Within the diaspora, the dance became an egalitarian symbol of heritage and pride.
Like western ballet, Khmer classical dance is a technically complex and aesthetically beautiful, refined and stylized form with a codified vocabulary and body line/silhouette. Story-based dances are hallmarks of each. In Khmer classical dance, these dramas typically take place in a mytho-poetic realm populated by gods and kings, demons and fantastical beings.
During the 20th century, western ballet makers began experimenting, seeking to extend the form’s vocabulary, subject matter and audience. In the early 21st century, Khmer classical dance is undergoing its own sea change. Since 1999, Khmer Arts Artistic Director Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has been expanding the dance’s possibilities through works that push against the form’s boundaries by enlarging the movement and gestural vocabularies, introducing new narrative devices, originating movement patterns, and experimenting with musical accompaniment, setting and costuming – all of which have long been considered inviolate. Today, her students and others working outside of official institutions are making dances from a deeply personal perspective, defining for themselves how classical dance will respond to its contemporary context.