Beside the marvelous Angkor, there are many other things to do in Siem Reap. One of them is to see an Apsara dance show. An Sophea Ritha is a head of the Smile of Angkor ballet troupe. She talks about studying at the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and a life of an Apsara dancer. Apsara is the art of dancing on the water, a dance of elegance and grace, but there is a hard work behind the scenes.
A legend says that Apsaras beauty was so impressive that even Gods could not resist their charm. Anyone who has ever seen the dance of An Sophea Ritha, would understand that the legend is still alive. When you ask Sophea to reveal her secret, she gives a humble answer : « It’s a lot of work ». An Sophea Ritha spent 15 years training with the famous Royal Ballet of Cambodia, before she finally became a professional Apsara dancer. She attended her first Apsara dancing class when she was five years old. Since then, until the age of twenty one, she has been training at least three hours every day.
Apsaras are the female divinities who can dance on the water. Their birth is described in the legend of Samudra Manthan (Churning of the ocean milk) – one of the fundamental stories of Hinduism. Their dance makes one believe that the gravity does not exist anymore, as they are sliding and flying in front of the fascinated audience. To achieve such lightness and grace « you simply have to love the training» – says An Sophea Ritha, smiling. She holds daily rehearsals with the troupe of the Smile of Angkor. In the end of the day, the dance should be more than perfect – as the Apsaras brook no mistakes. Meanwhile, the Apsara Dance is a part of the cultural heritage of Cambodia, officially recognised by UNESCO.
Alphabet of hands
« You have to love your art » – An Sophea Ritha keeps saying. The tradition of the Apsara dance dates back to the Angkor Era of the Khmer Empire. In those times, Apsara dancers officiated in the Angkor temples, showing the myths that were important for the brahmanical society through their dance. Legends about some Apsaras survived up to the present days. For example, the legend of the beautiful Menaka, who was sent to the Earth by Indra, the God of the Gods, to break mediation of Vishwamitra, – a great sage of the ancient India. The Apsara dancers narrate us this and many other legends, even though they do not speak or sing. Their language is their body and their hands. The arabesque hands of Apsara dancers – it is actually an alphabet.
Among all the stories of the Smile of Angkor, there is one that An Sophea Ritha prefers most : the story about the Sea of Milk. « Its a great ancient legend, – she says, – a story of the battle between gods and demons over the Amrita, the élixir of immortality ». Although ancient mythes are her passion, An Sophea does not neglect the elements of modern choreography completely, breathing a life into an ancient dance that has overcome the times and survived oblivion. Another sign that the journey of the immortal dance continues : the six-years old daughter of An Sophea, who is already learning the basic principles of the Apsara dance.
It has been six years that An Sophea has danced and guided the troupe of the Smile of Angkor. « Six years – it is more than 1500 performances…» – says An Sophea thoughtfully. And looking how she works, one understands that each of performances is new creation, another representation of Apsara, and as soon as the dancers reach the highest pitch of perfection, they have to conquer it all over again. Well, perhaps, this is the cost of the gift of turning the heads of the gods… and humans.
So if you don’t know what to do in Siem Reap after the visit of the temples, An Sophea will be proud to introduce you one of the most important piece of Cambodian culture!