September 5, 2023
PHNOM PENH – Her hands move gracefully through the air, capturing the essence of the land. With a sweeping motion skyward and a hand pointed upward, she mirrors the celestial heavens.
The dancers follow, rising on their toes, embodying divine ascent as the music soars.
It isn’t against the backdrop of a temple, but on the pristine slopes of Aoraki Mount Cook in New Zealand, bathed in the soft, snowy glow of twilight, that an Apsara dancer Sokea Kimleang stands poised, ready to narrate a tale of beauty and grace through her movements.
Her very presence is captivating, a living representation of spirit of her nation amidst a serene snowscape.
With unwavering dedication and a profound passion for preserving Cambodian traditions, this talented team embarked on a journey that transcends borders, bringing the captivating Apsara dance to the world.
Their commitment has earned them recognition from Prime Minister Hun Manet, who shared their Apsara dance to his social media.
He applauded their efforts, expressing gratitude for their dedication to promoting Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage on a global stage.
“I am grateful and appreciate the young individuals who, in their Apsara costumes, showcase the essence of ancestral Khmer art. Their dance serves to convey the beauty and richness of Cambodia’s civilisation to a global audience while performing on the snowy mountain in New Zealand,” the Prime Minister shared in a video post featuring Sokea Kimleang’s performance.
Taking their art to New Zealand’s highest peak, the 3,724-meter-tall Aoraki Mount Cook on the South Island, a group of passionate young artists faced both the elements and time constraints to create a mesmerising spectacle.
The journey to the snow-covered location involved a three-hour helicopter ride from their hotel, leaving the team with just 15 minutes to capture the essence of Apsara dance.
“As soon as I disembarked from the helicopter, I donned the crown and started dancing. I want to express my gratitude to the pilot for giving us an extra five minutes to showcase our national dance in such a chilly setting,” shared the lead dancer, Kimleang, also known as Kon Ant.
The choice of a snowy landscape for their dance is deeply symbolic. Aoraki Mount Cook represents a paradise, with the snow symbolising clouds and the mountain range behind it evoking the mythical emergence of an Apsara from the churning sea of milk, as told in ancient legends.
“I hope to convey this message to Cambodians worldwide: let’s cherish and support our arts, dances, and the rich cultural heritage that has been passed down to us by our ancestors,” Kimleang told The Post.
She explained that the purpose of this dance performance was to showcase a new perspective and promote her nation’s rich heritage to the world. As a dancer, she aims to highlight Cambodian culture.
Kimleang shared that the experience was filled with immense joy and pride.
She mentioned that the dance commenced without a rehearsal, and filming was brief due to time limitations.
She added that her troupe’s unwavering determination and teamwork were essential in achieving this remarkable feat.
Kimleang alone could not bring this marvellous dance to the icy slopes of the mountain; among the talented young people involved, Lee Dara Punleu, also known as Dara Lee and residing in New Zealand, designed the Apsara costume and crown using only materials available in New Zealand.
Dara Lee, the creative mind behind a traditional Kenor costume made entirely from kitchen products, which earned the people’s choice award at the Best Edible Fashions contest in New Zealand in 2018, expressed his desire to fashion an Apsara costume using authentic materials.
He mentioned that his motivation grew stronger as soon as he learned of Kon Ant’s upcoming visit to New Zealand.
Lee explained: “Since we’ve been following each other on social media for many years, I thought this would be the perfect time to collaborate”.
He explained how he dedicated himself to faithfully replicating the silhouette and proportions of the sculptures at Angkor Wat.
He pointed out that sourcing suitable materials in New Zealand proved to be more challenging than it would have been for artists in Cambodia. Consequently, he had to make the most of the materials available to him.
Lee said that his creative process began with a concept design, which he refined before sculpting and moulding the ornamental Kbach Khmer elements.
He then constructed the costume’s structure using cardboard and metal wires and adorned it with Kbach Khmer motifs using clay he pressed into silicone moulds.
Over the years, Dara Lee has drawn extensively from Khmer art, developing his unique artistic style.
He noted that the positive reception of his artwork over the past decade has encouraged him to trust that creating the Apsara costume would result in a rewarding experience for viewers.
“Over the past decade, I’ve created numerous pieces of Khmer art, and over time, I’ve developed my unique artistic style. Seeing the immense appreciation these artworks have received convinced me that crafting this costume would not be too challenging to create something visually appealing,” Dara Lee explained
Throughout the process, Dara Lee and his collaborators engaged in ongoing discussions via Instagram to select the style and colours that would contribute to the overall aesthetic of the costume.
“Speaking from my own experience and point of view only, I think the Apsara crown is one of the most important symbols of Cambodia. It is from the great Khmer empire and it represents Cambodian ballet in the present time,” Dara Lee told The Post.
This remarkable performance drew inspiration from a legacy dating back to the 1940s when Queen Sisowath Kossomak visited Sothearath Primary School, witnessing an inspiring Angkor Apsara dance by young students in paper costumes.
This visit eventually inspired her granddaughter, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, to become the first professional Apsara dancer of the modern era.
Kimleang, who recently gained attention for her goddess-like performance during the Khmer New Year Welcome as part of the 32nd SEA Games hosted by Cambodia, said she is but one small part of a larger group of traditional art preservers.
She said that she was pleasantly surprised after reviewing her Apsara dance on the snowy mountain, when Cambodian people began reposting and sharing it on social media. The dancer added that she didn’t have the luxury of time to check her makeup or to even try on the intricate costume.
Dara Lee explained that the idea to perform the Apsara dance on the snowy mountain arose from a simple concept.
He also shared that in his area, the Cambodian community is rather small, and families in New Zealand are usually occupied with their own affairs.
He observed a lack of Cambodian events in the area that could serve as a platform to showcase their rich traditions and culture.
He also expressed an aspiration to play a part in transforming this situation in the future.
“Our main goal in all of this is to spark a lively celebration of Khmer culture and the enchanting art of Cambodian classical dance,” he said.
Kimleang also said: “I’m thrilled to share these wonderful memories of creating a viral event on social media, thanks to the strong support of Cambodian people. I’m delighted with the results we achieved”.
As these passionate artists continue to spread the beauty and glory of Cambodia’s cultural heritage to the world, their dedication serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of Apsara dance and the Khmer civilisation.