While his father was synonymous with the arts and politics, King Norodom Sihamoni leaves the politics to his brothers to focus on his born love for classical dance and Khmer culture
King Norodom Sihamoni takes to the stage to congratulate disabled Chinese artists at Chaktomuk Conference Hall in Phnom Penh on January 17, 2008.
Unlike his brothers, who were active in Cambodia's royalist Funcinpec party and have waged protracted power struggles with the current premier, King Norodom Sihamoni has dedicated most of his life to the arts, especially classical dance.
In this regard, he has taken after his father. While King Norodom Sihanouk was certainly no shrinking violet when it came to Machiavellian manoeuvring, arguably his greatest positive legacy was the flowering of the arts under his patronage in post-independence Cambodia.
He was also responsible for introducing his son, then Prince Norodom Sihamoni, to the arts, even collaborating with him on The Little Prince, which was shot by the King in Cambodia when the Prince was 14. Filmed among Angkor's temples, the 18th- century story was about the just reign of a young orphaned prince over a small kingdom and his struggles against his uncle's evil wife.
By that stage, the young Prince had already moved a long way down the road to a life in arts, according to Julio A Jeldres, Sihanouk's official biographer.
While he was introduced to art by his father at an early age, it was his experiences in Prague, where he was sent by his father at age 6, that arguably led him to favour performance arts.
The Ministry of Education of what was then Czechoslovakia, placed a tutor, Karel Polak, at the young prince's service. One of his duties was to escort the young prince to the theatre, opera and films. The language barrier meant the young Prince initially warmed to ballet, finding the physicality of the art form easier to grasp than the strange new language he would eventually come to master.
In December 1962, Polak reported that the prince's scope of interests had widened proportionally with the improvement of his Czech language skills, Jeldres told the Post by email. "Initially, he was interested only in ballet, but now he has added film and opera to his favourites. Sometimes he invents various plots that he can even express in Czech, or by dance and music," Polak wrote to Sihamoni's parents.
According to a school report reproduced in the book Royal Ties, which was published in English by the Czech government in 2006, Sihamoni had, for his age, a "highly superior knowledge of music, especially opera, and in the field of literature, dramatic arts and film".
As a student, then-Prince Sihamoni portrayed the title character in the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker Suite at the Prague National Theatre. In 1975, aged 22, he graduated from the Czech Academy of Performing Arts, where he wrote a thesis titled "Utilising European Classical Dance in the Cambodian Dance Culture".
He then left for North Korea for a year of cinema studies, which was interrupted by a trip to visit his parents in Cambodia in October 1975 following the Khmer Rouge uprising. Forced to work in the fields for a month, he was allowed to return to Pyongyang, but on his next visit the following year he was detained under house arrest alongside his parents.
This interrupted his plan to enrol in doctoral studies in ballet or theatre history at Charles University, while political events in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s also prevented his return after Cambodia's emancipation from the Khmer Rouge.
Instead, Prince Sihamoni taught and danced in France following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, spending the years from 1981 to 2000 at the Marius Petipa conservatory, the Gabriel Faure conservatory and the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conservatory in Paris. In the late 1980s, he created his own dance company, Deva, which performed in France, China and North Korea, and produced two dance films, titled Dream and Four Seasons.
In 1993 he became Cambodia's ambassador to UNESCO, where he was involved in the international efforts to protect and preserve Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples in Cambodia. He also drew the world's attention to the traffic in stone antiquities from Angkor Wat and promoted exhibitions of Khmer art outside Cambodia and tours of the Royal Ballet to France and other countries.
He relinquished the position upon his 2004 coronation but his ties to the organisation continued. In 2006, UNESCO selected him to deliver the message for International Dance Day, an honor previously bestowed on dance greats like US choreographers Robert Joffrey and Merce Cunningham.
Today, says Jeldres, King Sihamoni takes a keen interest in Cambodian art, personally attending events if his schedule allows, or sending a senior member of the royal family.
However, because the King reigns and does not rule, much depends on the willingness of the royal government to fund the arts.
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