Soldiers tricked into sleep while their king is kidnapped; two opponents clashing until they realize they are father and son; a deathly battle to free the king; and through all this, magic enabling characters to change shape and perform impossible feats.
These are some episodes from the Reamker that dancers will stage in a rare performance in April of the unique dramatized dance form known as Lakhaon Kaol.
In glittering costumes and chiseled, painted masks, characters from this Cambodian version of the Indian-epic tale Ramayana will come to life through choreography the origins of which go back a thousand years.
For 90 minutes, dancers become mythical characters, embroiled in fights and intrigues, at times swirling into action, and at others frozen into Reamker scenes of Cambodian traditional paintings.
Young monkeys, interpreted by dance students 11 to 13 years old, provide lighter moments with their somersaults and playful games.
The all-male cast, which has been rehearsing for months, held a dress rehearsal for US theater presenters and donors on Feb 23 at the Royal University of Fine Arts Theater. A full rehearsal, complete with decor and lighting, is an unusual luxury for Cambodian dancers because of the costs involved, said production coordinator Fred Frumberg, who is the director of Amrita Performing Arts.
But this opportunity to promote Lakhaon Kaol could not be missed, he said. It also allowed the cast to see the show’s elements come together and to make final adjustments, Frumberg said.
The Lakhaon Kaol piece recounts how Preah Ream, a man with divine attributes, is abducted by Weyreap, the giant who rules the region of Batdal under the sea, and is rescued by his monkey commander Hanuman. In his quest to free Preah Ream, Hanuman comes across shimmering crabs, shrimps and seahorses; transforms himself into a small insect to hide on the body of the old woman Dara Kourn; and finally kills Weyreap in single combat.
Accompanied by traditional musicians, the dancers become larger than life through gestures and movements that incorporate cartwheels and other acrobatics, while wearing full masks and costumes of silk and gold.
“It’s tiring to dance because the masks make it very hard to breathe,” said Sok Tong, who plays a giant bodyguard and has been dancing since he was 12 years old in the early 1970s.
This form of Cambodian theater, which is mentioned in a 10th century stone inscription at Angkor, always featured an all-male cast, even for the female roles, while royal traditional dance—now called classical dance—involved only women, said Pich Tum Kravel, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Little is known of the history of this masked-drama form throughout the centuries, said Toni Shapiro-Phim, a US dancer and cultural anthropologist who co-authored the 1999 book “Dance in Cambodia” with Ashley Thompson. However, a text from the 16th or 17th century may be the narration for a Lakhaon Kaol piece, and a 19th century Battambang governor is mentioned as having Lakhaon Kaol at his son’s ordination, she said.
Research shows that Lakhaon Kaol was performed in many villages of Kompong Cham province along the Mekong river, said Pich Tum Kravel.
But by the 20th century, the tradition remained in only two areas, a village near Phnom Sampov in Battambang province and the village of Wat Svay Andet in Kandal province, he said. Dancers from that Kandal village were brought to Phnom Penh to perform during the King’s birthday celebrations, said Shapiro-Phim.
In both places, Lakhaon Kaol dancers were farmers or people of various trades, she said.
“They learned from the older generation of people by watching their whole lives, and by being mentored by someone who thought a person had a gift. And often people had to study for years before they were allowed to perform at ceremonies,” she said.
Those village pieces were long, ritual events. A Wat Svay Andet performance in the early 1990s lasted three days, said Shapiro-Phim.
In the 1960s and 1970s, students from the Royal University of Fine Arts toured the country to study local dances in order to create staged versions in Phnom Penh, she said. Their Lakhaon Kaol renditions were shorter than village pieces, and took place in a theater instead of the middle of a village, said Shapiro-Phim.
Faith in the magical powers of the performance was not brought to the capital but has endured in villages—“the acting of the story itself is believed to set change in the world, in other words, to bring rain if there is a drought,” she said.
Both village traditions have survived the Khmer Rouge era, although the Phnom Sampov village has not been performing regularly, while Wat Svay Andet continues to stage Lakhaon Kaol at Khmer New Year with support from the Ministry of Culture, said Pich Tum Kravel.
The Lakhaon Kaol piece that will be presented in April combines styles from both villages in the narration, said Seng Sam An, deputy chief of the ministry’s Office of Performing Arts, or National Theater. Monkey characters follow the Battambang-province style, and giant characters the Wat Svay Andet style, he said.
A full-length Lakhaon Kaol has not been staged in a Phnom Penh theater for a long time, said Frumberg. Since classical dance is the priority, in the last few years Lakhaon Kaol has only been presented in short segments as part of dance programs, he said.
When the US Embassy in Phnom Penh offered Lakhaon Kaol performers and scholars a grant to stage a full performance last year, they jumped at the opportunity. The Embassy’s goal was to help revive this theater tradition and, at the same time, give teachers the opportunity to train young Lakhaon Kaol dancers since the show would require a large cast, said Embassy spokesman David Gainer.
About 65 people have been involved in the project—four masters of this form of theater, advisors, dance teachers and dancers from the university and the National Theater.
They started working last October. First, they had to select a story out of the lengthy Reamker, which is Lakhaon Kaol’s sole repertoire. They picked the “Weyreap War,” which has turned the performance into “a rather complex show,” said Frumberg.
They found a traditional version of the piece, but could only locate segments of the choreography, said Proeung Chhieng, dean of the Faculty of Choreographic Arts at the university.
The two choreographers, Pok Sarann of the National Theater and Pum Bun Chanrath of the university, had to fill in the gaps. As a result, “this is a new creation,” said Proeung Chhieng.
The US Embassy grant will fully cover the costs of a gala performance on Sunday at the Chaktomuk theater, and public performances on April 8, 9 and 10.