O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
If the killing fields of Choeung Ek represented the worst of what people can do to one another, Apsara Arts Association represented the best. My entire trip to Cambodia was planned around art and history so it was essential to me to see traditional Cambodian dance. Because the Khmer Rouge tried to erase Cambodian culture, much like Mao Zedung’s cultural revolution in 1960s China, they targeted art. Dance has a long tradition in Cambodia; every temple of Angkor has hundreds of apsara dancers carved in bas-relief on the facades. Apsara means celestial dancer and the religious carvings are closely linked to the actual practice of apsara dance.
Its cultural significance made dance an obvious target for the Khmer Rouge, who killed 90% of the the dancers and dance teachers in Cambodia. I’ve already posted a bit about how moving it was to watch the 70-something year old teachers interact with tiny four-year-olds but I still find it remarkable that, in light of such inhumanity, the Apsara Arts Association exists at all.
Apsara Arts Association is a non-profit dance school founded by dancers from the Royal University of Fine Arts. The school trains young people in traditional arts, including dance, music and theatre. In 2008, UNESCO gave it World Heritage status, adding it to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (I’m not sure what that means either but, with my love of all things UNESCO, I’ll look it up and report back). Basically, UNESCO has decided that Khmer Classical Dance is pretty special and deserves to be protected (and hopefully funded). But we don’t need the UN to tell us that this dance is special.