These are the beautiful young members of the dance troupe, Sacred Dancers of Angkor, welcoming our group to their conservatory in the village of Banteay Srey. We were there for a private performance arranged through our hosts at Maison Polanka. This is an amazing troupe dedicated to keeping alive traditional Khmer dance forms. Many of the dancers are from poor families of farmers but their devotion to their art is heartwarming and awe-inspiring. Their training includes daily meditation and prayer and their repertoire reflects a deep spiritual connection to their cultural heritage. The program they performed for us featured approximately fifteen dancers and eight musicians. It included a Cambodian creation myth called Preah Thong Neang Neak, a piece based on a story from the Hindu epic, The Ramayana (called Reamker in Khmer), and a powerful folk tale of love and faithfulness called Lakhorn Mahori.
The movements in Khmer dance are formally spare, elegantly precise. Yet within that formalism and precision there is powerfully realized emotion. The faces of all the dancers were so expressive, so emotionally in tune with the action of the dance. Two women served in lead roles throughout, dancing both female and male characters. They were marvelous - stunning beauty of features, graceful and enigmatic - whether expressing tragic grief or bestowing sly smiles like the ones on the faces in the temples of Angkor, they commanded attention and raised the level of the performance to that of high art.
The final dance on the program was a lovely Apsara dance, Robam Teap Apsor. Apsaras are the celestial nymphs born of the foam of the Churning of the Ocean Milk in Hindu mythology. These delightful figures are found everywhere in the carvings of Angkor and the dance itself was inspired by these images.
The whole performance was exquisite, enthralling, and inspiring. At the conclusion, I was invited up to play some of the instruments. I hammered out a feeble melody on the roneat (Khmer xylophone), embarrassing really, but the dancers and musicians applauded all the same. As we left, the dancers lined up (just as they had in greeting us) to bid us farewell. It was dark as we made our way to the van but we could hear the students, so formal throughout, now being dismissed and erupting into giggles and excited conversation. Out on the road, family members pulled up on motorcycles to take the kids home. Many of the dancers, we were told, rode their bicycles between home and the conservatory, some as far as ten kilometers each way.
Fires burned in the Cambodian night and a few raindrops spattered the dust on the windshield as we bumped along on the road back to Siem Reap. The images and sounds of a beautiful, spiritual evening lingered in my mind. They linger still.