“My father had taught Lakhon Khol all his life until he was bedridden in 2015,” he said, weak from emotion. “I am grief-stricken to lose my father, but also proud of him.”
Born “Keo Sar”, Sarin changed his name during the Khmer Rouge regime, although he later became known simply as Lok Ta Sar (Grandpa White) – a nod to his signature role: the Hindu deity Hanuman, who is represented as a white monkey.
The dramatic pre-Angkorian dance form involves masked characters performing episodes of the Reamker – the Khmer version of the Hindu epic Ramayana – while a director, speaking and singing in three distinct “voices”, narrates the play over music.
According to Professor Aok Bunthoeun, vice dean of the Faculty of Choreographic Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts, the theatre was practiced in palaces and pagodas for centuries, but only by one gender.
“In the Royal Palace, it was said that officials would be jealous if male dancers were next to female dancers, so the male dancers of Lakhon Khol were relegated to pagodas,” he said.
But this all changed in 1940 when Queen Sisowath Kossamak called Yit Sarin and three other boys from the Wat Svay Andet pagoda in Kandal to perform the Monkey Dance for three days at the Royal Palace. Delighted with the performance, she put the four under the tutelage of Royal Ballet master Mam Yan. However, all but Yit Sarin grew homesick and left the palace.
From that “revolutionary” moment, Bunthoeun said, the Royal Ballet became the first Lakhon Khol troupe with both men and women on stage, although the roles of men would be limited to monkey characters and “the hermit” in the Reamker.
Beyond establishing himself as a master of the art, teaching subsequent generations of dancers, Yit Sarin served as King Norodom Sihanouk’s personal assistant (or his Moha Tlik) during his quest for independence, for which he received several Royal Honours.