When travelling to Cambodia, life-time experiences not only comes when you go to places but when you enjoy many beautiful cultural art forms. Watching a shadow dance performance and you will see the beauty in the harmony of music and movement of the Khmer art.
Cambodian Shadow Theater has a long story, dating back to a thousand years ago to an early Angkor time. Coupled with mask dance and Apsara dance, those three are the most loved forms of art in the country. The shadow dance was once nearly destroyed during the reign time of Khmer Rouge in 1970s, the same fate with many other cultural traditions. But thanks to effort of surviving artists, Cambodian Shadow Theater is on its way back.
The shadow dance in Cambodian is comprised by 2 major forms: Sbek Thom (big skin) and Sbek Touch (small skin).
There are many factors contributing to the uniqueness of these art forms. The Sbek Thom is featured by two-meter high, non-articulated puppets made of dried cow skin. The narrator of the story directs the orchestra (called ‘pien piet’) while the puppeteers themselves remain silent the whole performance. It usually tells the story of Reamker, the Khmer version of Ramayama rooted in Indian, might last for several nights and require up to 160 puppets for a single session.
The performances traditionally take place at night in open spaces. The shadow of the puppet’s silhouette is projected onto the white screen while the animator brings the puppets to life with precise and specific dance movements.
In the past, dedicated to divinity, Sbek Thom was only performed on special occasions, three or four times a year. Now, tourists can observe the dance in a few places such as Royal Phnom Penh University of Fine Arts, The Angkor Village Hotel Performance Centre and Grand d’Angkor Hotel.
Sbek Touch is the less formal and more improvisational of the two forms. The puppets here are smaller and have moving parts. Adding to it, the puppeteer also contributes as the narrator does. Because audience of Sbek Touch is the crowd, the stories told are about daily life in countryside and folktale of heroes and villains, and jokes are sometimes added.
The Indochina Voyages team.