FORT GREENE — Tall, regal headpieces, all colored in gold. Slow steps and regal gestures. Hands and wrists cuffed with shimmering bangles.
The Royal Ballet of Cambodia is coming to BAM this Thursday, opening three nights of performances of “The Legend of Apsara Mera” that will be the centerpiece of Season of Cambodia, a two-month festival showcasing the best of modern Cambodia’s art scene.
“The Legend of Apsara Mera” tells the Khmer creation myth of a war between gods and demons in the cosmos. In the tale, the warring divinities churn the milk waters below, calling up from the froth mythical dancers, the Apsaras, of such stunning beauty that they divert the two powers from war.
The Queen of the Apsaras was then reincarnated on the earth, becoming mother and princess to the Cambodian people, according to a press release.
It’s the story of Cambodia’s beginnings, a theme that has profound resonance in Season of Cambodia’s celebration of contemporary art in Cambodia, a country no longer uniquely defined by the peaks and lows of its past: the 12th-century Khmer Empire and, some eight centuries later, the Cambodian Genocide.
“The focus of the entire Season of Cambodia festival is on introducing the phenomenal living arts of the country to a wider audience,” said Joseph V. Melillo, BAM Executive Producer. “It is not to deny history, but rather to emphasize the extraordinary present of Cambodia’s artistic community."
The spiritual, delicate dance — first performed in Paris in 1964 — was choreographed by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a former principal dancer in the Royal Ballet in the 1960s who lived in exile from 1970-1991, seeking sanctuary from the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal campaign against all intellectuals, including dancers, from 1975-1979.
As part of the government’s plot to roll the once cosmopolitan country backwards to an agrarian Year Zero, 90 percent of Cambodia’s trained dancers were executed during a half-decade long nightmare.
Since then, the country’s traditional dance has tepidly resurged, rising from nothing to again grace stages with its decadent costumes and serene movements. That resurgence has been mirrored across Cambodia’s artistic landscape, in a vibrant contemporary art scene that celebrates a better future for a new generation.
“Many of the keepers and practitioners of this ancient and sacred dance form were casualties of the Khmer Rouge,” said Melillo. “Every performance of the Royal Ballet, in addition to being a ravishing aesthetic experience, is simultaneously a kind of cultural victory.”
Following the Friday night performance, Buppha Devi will address the audience about the art form and her personal experiences. The following afternoon, she will oversee a master class in traditional Cambodian court dance at the Mark Morris Dance Center.
“The Legend of Apsara Mera” will be danced three times, May 2 - May 4. Each performance is at 7:30 p.m. Put on by non-profit group Cambodian Living Arts, Season of Cambodia festival runs until May 31st. For tickets and information, see http://seasonofcambodia.org/.