According to Wikipedia, an apsara is "a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Frequently encountered English translations of the word 'Apsara' are 'nymph,' 'celestial nymph,' and 'celestial maiden'." You may remember my references to the apsara being one of the by-products of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Apsara are an amazingly popular decorative motif in Angkorian-era temples (and in modern homes as well).
In the Angkor temples the apsara are typically depicted in two ways: standing topless in long skirts and elaborate headdresses as you see above and kicking their feet up as seen below.
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Apsara are particularly famous for their dance skills which have been recreated by human woman in Cambodia since the beginnings of Indian influence in the region in the first century. The apsara dance in Cambodia took on its own unique elements and by the Angkorian period was unique to the Khmer. According to Wikipedia, apsara was no longer performed in public after the the Thai sacked Angkor in the 15th century and was essentially lost until a Cambodian queen revived the art in the 1940s. I am not sure how lost the art was. We have been told that the apsara dance we see performed today is in fact recreated from the gestures and movements seen in the apsara carved into temples. Though it appears the movements could have also been passed down unofficially. The dance again faced extinction during the time of the Khmer Rouge who were set on destroying all things cultural.
We saw a free apsara dance performance at the Temple Club on Pub Street. I was a little reticent of seeing the show, as I did not expected a free show at one of the biggest barang bars in town to be high quality. Boy, was I wrong. The performance was amazing.
The dancers first performed what was described as a blessing dance. According to Web of Cambodia:
"Cambodian Blessing Dance (or Robam Choun Por in Khmer language) is a Khmer traditional dance to mark special holidays with certain dances from the repertoire of Cambodian classical ballet. To mark the occasion such as this Cambodian Community Day event, a performance of the Blessing Dance is in order. This dance is performed by a group of young and beautiful girls to entertain and wish guests of honor as well as the audience, good health, happiness, prosperity and success. This dance features the dancers move gracefully and elegantly, holding golden goblets. Inside the goblets are flower blossoms. The blossoms are symbolic representations of blessings from the gods. As the dancers pluck the blossoms from the goblets and gently toss them forward toward the audience, the gesture symbolizes the blessings of the gods falling upon the audience."
This was followed by the coconut shell dance. Which is not an apsara dance, but another traditional Khmer dance. According to Web of Cambodia, "Khmer Coconut Shells Dance (or Robam Koah Trah Lauk in Khmer language) is a classical dance describes the traditional use of natural resource for entertaiment in Cambodia countryside. Like other rural populations, Cambodians who live in the provinces and harvest the country."
Next came the official apsara dance.
A folk dance called the Pailin Peacock dance followed. According to Wikipedia, the peacock dance is "a dance which highly focus on Peacock style included Dress and Movement style. A ethnic group in Cambodia, Kula people in Pailin which come from Burma, create this dance depend on Burmese costume."
According to the program, the next dance was the Ream Liak and Joop Liak dance. As best I can discern it tells the story of a defeated enemy and mighty warriors. However, I cannot find any information on the internet.
Finally, they performed the fishing dance. According to Canby Publications, "the romantic Fishing Dance [is] usually [an] adaptation of dances found in the countryside or inspired by rural life and practices." This was by far the cutest dance with wonderful storytelling of boy meets and woos girl and fabulous facial expressions.
One of my favourite parts of the dance where the expressive nature of the dancers' feet. I had been interested in the depiction of the apsaras' feet in the bas relief.
They were so large and cartoony. It was amazing to watch the dancers make their own tiny feet seem bigger than life and so expressive.