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Cambodian Princess Who Rescued Traditional Ballet Dies at Age 76

In this file photo taken Dec. 17, 2018, shows Royal Ballet director H.R.H Norodom Buppha Devi and the Royal Ballet dancer and performer in Neang Watthana Devi, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

Cambodia’s Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a former minister of culture who helped revive traditional Apsara dance after the 1970s Khmer Rouge “killing fields” regime nearly wiped it out, has died at age 76, the royal palace said on Monday.

The princess died of natural causes in a hospital in neighboring Thailand, Cambodia’s Royal Palace said in a Facebook post.

The daughter of the late King Norodom Sihanouk and half sister of current King Norodom Sihamoni, Buppha Devi at age 5 became a dancer of Khmer ballet, a form of stylized dance created in the royal courts for entertainment and ceremonies.

Characterized by intricate hand gestures and elaborate costumes and headgear, the art form has been associated with Cambodian royal courts for more than 1,000 years, according to the UN cultural organization UNESCO.

A film of Buppha Devi performing the variation called Apsara dance in 1966 was directed by her father, King Sihanouk.

She was forced to flee the country when the hardline communist Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, emptying cities and banning what they deemed decadent elite practices.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of execution, starvation and disease in the period known as the “killing fields”. Intellectuals and artists were particularly targeted, and Khmer ballet was nearly extinguished with the deaths of most of its teachers.

After the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge and a peace process that ended a decade of civil war, Buppha Devi returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s and helped to revive traditional Apsara and other Khmer dance.

She served as minister of culture and fine arts from 1998 to 2004.

“Cambodia will remember that thanks to the Royal Highness Norodom Buppha Devi, the Cambodian Royal Ballet has been enlisted as a part of the world heritage,” her cousin Prince Sisowath Thomico told Reuters.

“What I hope now is that more people will take her legacy and continue her work and just to show how much the royal ballet means for the Cambodian culture,” Thomico said.