In the swirling mists of Hindu culture’s long and elaborate evolution of beliefs, the Apsara is a beautiful female spirit being, a celestial nymph of cloud and water, whose first appearance stretches all the way back to the Rig Veda at the dawn of written Hindu scripture in the second millennium BC.

Hindu culture spread far from it origins in India to infuse its rich mythology, often conveyed through dramatic dances, into the cultures of Southeast Asia and the Apsara appears widely represented on the fabulous ancient monuments of the Majapahit Empire in Java and Bali, the Champa Kingdom of present day Vietnam, the Buddhist caves of China and most particularly in the monuments of Angkor in Cambodia, where she appears as a recurring motif in the design of Angkor Wat.

It is thought that in the heyday of the Khmer civilisation, the court of Angkor had as many as three thousand Apsara dancers, performing privately for the King. When the Angkor Empire was sacked by the Thais in 1431, the art form found its way into Thailand through captive Khmer dancers, whose graceful skills greatly influenced the development of Thai dance forms.

Although elements of the once great dance themes of Cambodia survived during its dark ages, the spirit of the past was rekindled in the nineteenth century, when Prince Ang Duong, who was himself a captive of the Thais in a later era, eventually returned home to assume Kingship, restoring the lost dance forms long preserved in Thailand to his court, founding the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, with dancers typically trained from the royal household.

During the French occupation of Cambodia, the renditions of Hindu epics such as the Ramayana, full of Gods, battle scenes and mythical creatures were, through studies made of the motifs at Angkor Wat, subjected to a historical reinterpretation of the dance forms, so long adrift in the culture of Thailand.

In 1906, French audiences in Marseilles were treated to a performance of Apsara dance which was greatly admired by the artist Rodin, who subsequently produced a series of paintings based upon the dances.

In the 1940’s, Queen Kossamak made many refinements to the choreography and sumptuous costumes, and shortened the traditionally very long performances to better suit western tastes. At this time some of the roles traditionally performed by women, particularly animal roles, were assigned to male dancers.

In the post-Independence world following 1953, Apsara dance began again to flourish as an integral part of Cambodian culture, but the takeover of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 would prove an utter disaster for every facet of traditional life, during which 90 percent of the dancers, musicians, choreographers and teachers disappeared, many of whom were put to death by the regime, or otherwise starved under its brutal austerity.

In the rubble, environmental ruin and cultural wasteland that was inherited in 1979 following liberation by the Vietnamese, surviving dancers who had fled the country began to piece together as much of the traditionally oral teachings of Apsara dance as they could recall, and the process of restoring the emblematic art form of Cambodia began, with the Royal Ballet being re-formed, which once again performed the magnificent Ramayana in public in 1995.

In 2003, UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on this precious art and in the modern era the revitalised form has enthusiastically been embraced in popular culture with many small performances provided by hotels and tourist venues, particularly in Siem Reap.

Some modern performances are enhanced through the deployment of modern lighting and the use of lasers, which hints at a hopeful evolution to preserve traditional forms and Cambodian dress within modern pop culture.  However, if you want the true spectacle of traditional rendition of the Hindu masterpieces, the Royal Ballet performs in Phnom Penh, mainly at the Chenla Theatre and Chaktomouk Conference Hall, as well as touring around the world, to great acclaim.

Aside from traditional works such as the Ramayana, some modern exponents of the ancient dance, notably Sophiline Shapiro, who was among the exiled Cambodians who were instrumental in resurrecting the dance in the post Pol Pot era, also interpreted works such as Mozart’s Magic Flute and Shakespeare’s Othello for international audiences.

As with all refined dancing, training is rigorous and starts at the age of seven, and is today overseen by the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. An important feature of Apsara dance is the graceful motion of the hands, which demands extraordinary flexibility, with each gesture embodying symbolic meaning. It typically takes between nine to twelve years to fully master the 1500 gestural linguistic motions utilised in traditional Apsara.

Accompanying the dances and dramatic ensembles, performances are enhanced through the traditional orchestral repertoire of Cambodian instruments and further augmented with poetic singing.

If you are watching an Apsara show, whether in Cambodia or at one of the world’s premier performance venues, it is interesting to consider that you are witnessing the graceful beguilement of a mythical creature whose dancing form emanates from well beyond recorded history.