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New generation of Lakhon Khol dancers pay respects to old masters

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The Sampheas Krou ceremony is held to pay gratitude to the masters of traditional art forms such as classical dance. SUPPLIED

New generation of Lakhon Khol dancers pay respects to old masters

The New Generation of Lakhon Khol Youth Traditional Dance Group is making plans to put on a spectacular performance in Siem Reap at the end of this year that will be bigger and better than their show held last week for the annual traditional celebration of Sampheas Krou.

“Having done the annual Sampheas Krou ceremony, we have chosen our destination for the show. In the past, we performed in Kandal, Kampot, Takeo, and Kampong Speu provinces,” Hang Phumra, a classical Khmer dance expert, tells The Post.

Traditionally, the Sampheas Krou ceremony is held to pay gratitude to the artistic masters and spiritual guardians but beyond that it is believed to be an auspicious day for performances.

“At the end of this year, we will have a big performance in Siem Reap and in 2023 we have plans for a big show in Kampong Cham to celebrate National Cultural Day on March 3,” Phumra says. “Our performances are mostly classical and traditional forms like Lakhon Khol or masked dance and folk dance. We usually perform in pagodas like we did at Svay Chhrum temple in Kandal Province.”

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Hang Phumra lit candles in front of trays of fruit and the portraits of past dance masters as well as Lakhon Khol masks. SUPPLIED

This year Sampheas Krou was performed by the New Generation of Lakhon Khol and the Royal Ballet Dance group on May 29 at the headquarters of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC) located in Sangkat Prek Leap of Khan Chroy Changvar in Phnom Penh.

“We also perform on holidays like Visak Bochea, the festival commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha and on Meak Bochea, which is the day when Buddha prophesied his own death,” Phumra says.

The Sampheas Krou ceremony has been done for the past four years by New Generation of Lakhon Khol Youth Traditional Dance Group with this year’s theme being “teacher for one day, teacher for a lifetime”.

“Through public support, donations and volunteers the ceremony is organised and held every year to pay our gratitude to the spiritual guardians and masters both dead and alive. By doing so, we believe that it will bring luck and make it an auspicious day with happiness and a successful performance. The ceremony also helps spread awareness among the youth to preserve their own culture,” Phumra says.

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The ceremony venerates historic figures such as the founder of the Royal Ballet as well. SUPPLIED

The ceremony was executed gracefully with appropriate reverence. Dressed in intricate traditional dance costumes, several hundred male and female performers sat in rows on the floor with their hands held in sampeah while listening attentively to their teachers and masters.

The sound of traditional music instruments echoed loudly under the tall roof of the UYFC building as the dance master lit candles on top of the fruits piled up on trays as offerings to the spiritual guardians and grand masters.

A photo Her Royal Highness Samdech Reach Botrei Preah Ream Norodom Buppha Devi – the former director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia – was among the masters’ pictures and the many Lakhon Khol lacquer masks ritually displayed.

Phumra, who is also known by his stage name Yey Kantere, stressed the importantance of the annual Sampheas Krou ceremony in his speech because it appeared to him that it was gradually losing the essence of the original practices.

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Classical dance expert Phumra can skilfully perform both male and female roles. SUPPLIED

“The aim of the Sampheas Krou ceremony for traditional dance and the Lakhon Khol in general is to spread awareness among younger Khmer generations and the public about our culture. We’d like to spark their interest in helping us preserve the traditional art forms and intangible heritage,” Phumra says.

Phumra, 33, trains young people in classical dance for free and he and the other masters have tried their best to follow the ancient practices correctly.

“Originally, people spent a very long time on this Sampheas Krou ceremony in the past because the artists and masters would play 33 songs to dedicate to the grand master of art in all forms. Nowadays I see people doing a shortcut version by performing only a few songs during this ceremony,” Phumra says. “If we don’t sacrifice any time and resources to do this ceremony and show the public that it’s something we take seriously then gradually this tradition and custom will be forgotten.”

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This year’s Sampheas Krou theme was ‘Teacher for one day, teacher for a lifetime’. SUPPLIED

The Sampheas Krou ceremony this year gathered all the traditional dance students from different provinces and towns throughout the country.

“We had total of around 500 of them coming to pay gratitude to their dance masters. Thanks to the big space at UYFC, we were able to celebrate this occasion with a lot of people to show solidarity,” Phumra says.

Phumra himself has spent more than 20 years learning and teaching Khmer traditional dance to other people and for the past year he has been working as an official with the Provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts in Kampong Cham province.

Though he is now widely respected as one of the best classical dancers in Cambodia with the versatility to perform many roles, including both male and female characters, his family was initially against him having a career in dance.

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Around 500 students attended the ceremony to thank their dance masters at the UYFC headquarter. SUPPLIED

Today Phumra’s ambition is to train as many dancers as he can, though he says it’s hard to find young people with a true passion and commitment who take traditional art seriously and are willing to keep it alive by doing it professionally.

He admits that the training is time consuming and the income can vary greatly, which are big drawbacks in the modern day context.

“We cannot force young people to take up these traditional art forms and learn the necessary skills. Traditional art and dance for the younger generation will only be for those who are really devoted to continuing its practices,” he says.

Since 2019, New Generation of Lakhon Khol Youth Traditional Dance Group have provided free dance lessons and Lakhon Khol lessons to hundreds of people in batches of 10 students at a time.

“The dance lessons are totally free of charge. For many years many dance masters and myself have voluntarily spent time and personal resources trying to inspire youth to embrace our ancestral customs and culture,” Phumra says.

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Hang Phumra, traditional dance master. SUPPLIED

The traditional masked dance Lakhon Khol was put on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding in 2018. The masked dance is something that could appeal to a wide variety of audiences because of its energy and surprises, according to Phumra.

“Sometimes the monkey characters can improvise with his or her performance by interacting with the audience. The playful monkey dancer can come downstage and get closer to the people and make things a bit humorous and getting a lot of laughs. It’s the sort of improvisation that is positive and creative,” Phumra says.

Phumra is one of the few choreographers or dancers in the country that has experience with putting on a grand large-scale performance with hundreds of dancers. He says he remains optimistic that the traditional arts will thrive by incorporating new forms of dance or perhaps through contemporary dance forms based on traditional elements.

“The original form still remains. We can rework it to make it more attractive to a new audience,” he says.

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