Cambodia has a rich tradition in theater, dating from the pre-Angkorian period of the 6th century. There are also numerous folkloric forms of theater found thraughout the country, including the Lokhon Bassac, the Lakhon Khaul, shadow theater and yike.
Classical dance, masked theater (khaul) and shadow play (Nang Sbaek Thom) form the core of Cambodian theatrical expression.
Cambodian theater incorporates local legends and Indian epics such as the Ramayana and, with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism tales from the Jatakas, the lives of the Buddha.
The royal theater is based on the great epic produced in ancient India, the Ramayana, which was adapted in Cambodia and called the Reamker.
The Ramayana was written about 2,000 years ago. The 48,000 line epic adyssey is essentially a moral tale, describing the adventures of Prince Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Before Rama's birth, the gods determined his life would be one of a hero, but that he would be tested through trial and tribulation.
Renouncing his throne, the prince was banished and wandered in the wilderness with his beautiful wife Sita, and his brother Lahksman, for many years. Sita was abducted by the evil King Ravana. Rama finds her with the help of Hanuman, the King of the monkeys and son of the God of the wind.
Masked theater is also part of the royal theater, where artists perform with brightly colored masks of Ramayana characters.
Originating with the apsaras, the celestial female dancers depicted at Angkor Wat, dance gestures are identical to those seen on the temple's murals.
The ornate costumes, not so revealing as those of the seductive apsaras in stone, are so close fitting that dancers are sewn into them before perfarmances.
"I contemplated them in ecstasy," rhapsodized the French sculptor Radin in 1906 when King Sisowath's dancers took France by storm at the great Colonial Exhibition. When they left, Rodin lamented that "they had taken with them all the beauty of the world."
The dances are symbolic and the slow, graceful gestures conform to a strict and precise language of movement, with its own vocabulary, syntax and punctuation. The exact number of gestures is not certain but recent studies included 8,000 photographs to record each one.
Each dance is an act of worship and blessing. Most of the dancers are women, and there are four principal roles, the Prince, the Princess, the Giant and the Monkey.
As well as performing the classical Reamker, the National Theater has produced contemporary history of the country called The Life of the Notion of Cambodia.
The production charts the history of the country's king, the French protectorate, Prince Sihanouk's regime, the Lon Nal years and the wars, the Pol Pot regime, the aftermath, the arrival of the United Nations and the crowning of King Sihanouk.
Music plays an important role in the lives of Khmer people. Phleng Pinpeat, the traditional Khmer orchestra, accompanies the dance, rituals and ceremonies, such as water festivals.
Phleng Mohori is a refined, nostalgic court music, usually played for the King. Chrieng Chapei is a story that is chanted accompanied by the chapei, the Khmer guitar. The chrieng tar is improvised ballads sung by groups of men and women. Ayai is a sung commedy, usually performed by a boy and a girl who improvise a verbal duet lasting an hour or two.
In villages traditional Khmer orchestras called phleng khmer accompany rituals of magic and marriage ceremonies.