The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization proclaimed the Cambodian Royal Ballet to be a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” this month, bestowing the ancient dance and its performers with a prestigious honor reserved for only the world’s finest cultural arts.
“The Royal Ballet is very unique because it has religious and spiritual value as well as artistic value,” said Teruo Jinnai, Unesco culture program specialist. “I think the award will motivate Cambodian artistic influence in neighboring countries and encourage more exchanges of cultural events.”
A jury of international art experts identified the ballet and 27 other international arts as “masterpieces” early this month and announced their results Nov 7. Unesco has now granted 47 such awards. More than 60 countries submitted entries. Nominations included “intangible arts,” such as folklore and shadow puppetry.
“The jury’s criteria was that the art represent national identity, have its own history and traditional value, and be related to the heritage of humanity,” Jinnai said.
The Royal Ballet has been associated with the Royal Court for more than 1,000 years, and traditionally accompanies ceremonies such as coronations, marriages, funerals and holiday celebrations. Carvings of Royal Ballet dancers, characterized by their graceful hand movements, appear on ninth-century Angkor temples.
Cambodia’s application to Unesco was spearheaded by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a former first dancer with the ballet.
She began lobbying the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to apply in 2001.
The ballet is currently marginalized in the city, with only two loosely formed troupes of approximately 60 male and female dancers at the Royal University of Fine Arts and the National Theater. Performances are held only in honor of national events and official visits from abroad.
A few small dance troupes in Siem Reap perform simplified versions of apsara, one of the many repertoires of the ballet, in hotels for tourists.
Though the award invites potentially lucrative tourism opportunities, Unesco expressed concern in a statement that more performances could pose the “risk of [the ballet] being transformed into a mere tourist attraction.”
Unesco instead hopes the award will encourage the government to protect the art as a valued part of the country’s heritage.
Hang Soth, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts director general of techniques for culture, said the ministry was organizing a show at Chenla Theater Nov 29 to showcase the ballet program.