The lights dim and the room falls silent. A soft light issues from behind a white screen as the drums begin to play. Suddenly, shapes appear dancing across the screen. A narrator’s voice emerges, telling a tale of a monkey, Hanuman, trying to rescue his master’s wife, Sita. If this sounds like something out of legend, it is. It is legend brought to life by Sbek Thom.
History and Tradition of Sbek Thom: A Sacred Story
Sbek Thom, or traditional Cambodian Large Shadow Puppet Theater is a sacred art form dating back over 1000 years. Created before the time of Angkor, this style of theatre tells religious stories, especially the legends of the Ream Ke.
This week at Phare, our artists had the opportunity to study Sbek Thom with performers from Kok Thlok of Phnom Penh. They brought this ancient art form to life as part of the program funded by the European Union and UNESCO-IFCD.
Sbek Thom is performed using leather non-articulated puppets that can
be up to 2 meters tall. The making of the puppets is a time honored tradition. The exact process depends on the character that the puppet will represent. Each character requires its own special religious ceremony.
Before the performance begins, artists gather to pray and meditate. They burn incense and chant prayers, preparing themselves for the performance. They are about to tell a sacred story and must have a calm mind that will allow them to display their characters authentically.
The performance itself is a fluid expression of storytelling and movement. Dancers guide the puppets behind a white sheet to the sounds of a Cambodian orchestra. With the help of one or two narrators, the performers eloquently act out the religious legends of the Ream Ke.
Shadow Puppets, Phare Style
This week in our Artist Residency, students from our performing art school spend two days studying this art form. They learned a performance of one chapter of the Ream Ke, Cambodia’s version of the Ramayana.
The dancers and performers from Artonik joined the training. Artonik is visiting us from France this month to build a contemporary dance routine. In this collaboration, the artists from Artonik had a chance to learn a traditional Cambodian art form and bring aspects of this new style into their own art.
The result was a performance of Sbek Thom unlike any other. Khmer and Europeans came together to tell us the tale of Hanuman, the monkey, trying to rescue his master’s wife Sita from a demon.
Sbek Thom’s Difficult History
This performance has a deeper significance to our Cambodian audience than the religious story. The art form of Sbek Thom, preserved for centuries in Cambodia, was nearly eradicated during the brutal Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s and into the 1980s. Today, thanks to the hard work of artist collectives such as Kok Thlok, the art form is having a revival. Phare Ponleu Selpak is proud to encourage the next generation of Cambodian performers to study this vital cultural art form.