9 August 2015

Apsara Dance on Cambodian Stamps

For tourists, it may be hard to differentiate the different dances of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia repertoire, but there is an easy-to-tell dance which has all performers wearing golden crowns elaborately decorated with "round disks" and three or five "spines".  This is "Robam Tep Apsara", the Apsara Dance, one of the most famous Cambodian classic dances. 

Three 2003 stamps depicting apsara dancers.

Apsaras, in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, are beautiful female celestial dancers in gods' palace.   During the Angkorian period, there were thousands of dancers in the royal court who performed exclusively for the kings and for religious rites.  Images of them can be seen on reliefs of temples of the era.

 Dancing apsara depicted in a bas-relief of Angkor Wat.

The classical dance flourished for six centuries until the down fall of the empire.  In 1431, the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya captured and looted Angkor Thom, artists, scholars and other elites were kidnapped to Ayutthaya to advance the Siamese culture.  Since then the Khmer art form declined in Cambodia and was almost lost until a renaissance in 20th century.

 Stamps depicting bas-relief of devatas at Angkor Wat.

In late 1950s Queen Sisowath Kossamak patronaged Madame Chea Samy and other dance masters to create a dance about the apsaras in garden, this is the Apsara Dance.  The music was modeled on that of "Robam Phuong Neary", the Flower Lady Dance.

A 1985 stamp features an Apsara dancer striking a pose at 
Preah Thineang Chan Chhaya (the Moonlight Pavilion) of the Royal Palace.

Just as all other classic dances, the Apsara Dance is highly symbolic and straightly conform to the old traditional language of gestures and movement with its own vocabulary which can be traced back to the Angkorian time.  These gestures and movement are like sign language for telling the story of the dance.  The dancers are accompanied by a choir, consisting of mostly female vocalists, and a pinpeat orchestra - an ensemble of traditional musical instruments.

In 2005 Cambodia issued a set of 5 stamps and a S/S to promote the Apsara Dance.
Here is the FDC of the stamps, each stamp depicts a movement of the dance.

Costumes are a faithful remake of what shown on the reliefs of Angkor Wat, the only modification is that the modern dancers wear skin tight tops while the ancient apsaras danced bare chested.

On this 2005 S/S, an Apsara dancer poses next to the bas-relief of devatas at Angkor Wat.
The costumes of old and new are very much the same.

The first performer of the dance was said to be Princess Norodom Vichara in 1958.  In 1961, Marcel Camis in his film "L'Oiseau de paradis" featured Princess Norodom Bopha Devi performing the Apsara Dance.  Since then, the well loved Apsara Dance has been one of the classic dances which Cambodians see as an artistic symbol of cultural heritage and national identity. 

The following is a YouTube video of a graceful Apsara Dance performance by the Capital Dancing Troupe.  In the later part of the dance, the dancers have golden branches of flowers in their hands.  Enjoy !