Past & Present

Royal Khmer Dance
robam preah reachea trop

Past and Present

In 1906, two years after succeeding his half-brother Norodom, King Sisowath of Cambodia, accompanied by the Royal Ballet, embarked on a long trip to Marseilles for the French Colonial Exposition. France responded warmly to the charming dancers and the king’s entourage. The famous sculptor Rodin was so enchanted by the dancers that he traveled with them and drew evocative sketches of their fluid, graceful movements. Lamenting their inevitable departure, Rodin, profoundly moved, confessed:

What emptiness they left me with. I thought they had taken away the beauty of the world. I followed them to Marseilles; I would have followed them as far as Cairo.

Under the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, Royal Khmer dance was banned from the soil of Cambodia. Its artists were executed or died from malnutrition, illness and forced labor. After the regime’s collapse in 1979, Royal Khmer dance had almost disappeared; few former dancers had survived. Ever since this brutal period, Royal Khmer dance has slowly and painstakingly struggled to retrieve memories. Former dance masters have tried to revive the gestures, music, and artistry that are part of Khmer classical dance’s heritage. Their long-lasting and devoted efforts were finally recognized and honored when UNESCO proclaimed the Royal Ballet of Cambodia (or Royal Khmer dance) a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. Yet, two years later, the campus of Royal University of Fine Arts which is devoted to the Arts was moved out of the center of the capital Phnom Penh. Many of its faculty and students have since deserted the far-away facilities, resulting in the slow death of what was, since 1964, the main government sponsored program for transmitting the tradition of Royal Khmer Dance.