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How Cambodian dancers captured Rodin's heart


When France's Governor-General of Indochina, Albert Sarraut, laid the foundation

stone for Phnom Penh's museum on August 15, 1917, he's unlikely to have pondered

that colonialism itself might one day become a museum relic.

A poster advertising the Marseille Colonial Exhibition of 1906 lists "Streets of Saigon and Hanoi" and "Indochinese Theater" among the exotic colonial attractions.

Cambodia was first "exhibited" at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in

1878, when Louis Delaporte revealed ancient Khmer statuary reproduced from moulds

he had made on various expeditions. Not far away, in keeping with the anthropological

spirit of the times, a Cambodian skeleton was on display.

In 1889, a replica of the central tower of Angkor was erected in the Place des Invalides

at that year's grand fair.

In 1900, over 40 million visitors flocked to Paris for the Exposition Universelle,

where Angkorean statuary and bas-reliefs were replicated in the subterranean grottoes

inside an enormous replica of Wat Phnom. Nearby, an "Indochinese Theater"

was subcontracted to a French entrepreneur who staged representations of dances from

Hue and the Cambodian court.

As European rivalry for territory and glory grew, so too did the size and scale of

colonial displays at such international exhibitions. Mapped to mirror colonial cartography,

exhibition grounds were subdivided into plots representing Africa, or Indochina,

allowing little room for maneuver across national categories.

The culture of the colonized, such as Khmer statuary, did not qualify as "art,"

and was quarantined from that of European artists exhibited in the Salon. Artistic

inspiration, however, was less easily quarantined.

The composers Claude Debussy, Alfred Satie and Ravel all found inspiration at the

international exhibitions, as did the sculptor Auguste Rodin. In 1889, the Javanese

gamelan inspired Satie's Gnossiennes. Rodin's sight of the "serpentine, undulating"

Javanese dancers in1889 fired his first critique, two years later, of "the abrupt

staccato" of classical French ballet.

Debussy found inspiration for his 1903 composition Pagodes in what he later described

as Javanese and Cambodian dancers at the 1900 exhibition. In all likelihood, Debussy's

"Oriental" muse was the Parisian opera-singer Cléo de Mérode,

who performed in the Indochinese Theater "dressed as a sacred Cambodian dancer."

For Rodin the "Far-Eastern section" was the centerpiece of the 1900 Exposition:

he marveled at the "hitherto unknown art" revealed in the Cambodian stairway

to the replica of Wat Phnom.

Rodin sketches Cambodian dancers in the garden of their residence in Marseille.

By 1906, when the Marseille Colonial Exhibition opened, the notion of Angkor as a

dead civilization discovered by the French, was an idée reçue among

such exhibition-goers and any who cared to read the fashionable Parisian broadsheet

l'Illustration. There was no reason, given the public presentation of Cambodge to

date - through antique monuments, skeletons and natural specimens - for museum and

exhibition visitors to debate it.

This all changed when King Sisowath arrived in Marseille on June 11, accompanied

by ten provincial delegates, 69 women, 12 musicians, five guardians, two jewelers,

and one doctor.

The distinguished minister Son Diep was in charge of the surveillance and installation

of the dancers, who, at the insistence of Princess Sumphady, director of the troupe,

were housed together at Les Glycines, a villa two kilometers from the exposition.

Two police guards were assigned to their quarters, and a special carriage carried

them twice daily to dine at a Vietnamese restaurant.

On show nights, a private bus ferried them to the Indochinese Theater, where thousands

of spectators thronged to watch them.

A week after their arrival, the dancers journeyed to the Bois de Boulogne in Paris

to perform for the French President at an "artistic gala" hosted by the

Minister of Colonies, featuring Greek dances and an 18th-century piece performed

by opera stars.

Auguste Rodin was so mesmerized by what he saw that he followed the dancers back

to Marseille to capture their grace on paper. "Il n'y a eu qu'elles et les Grecs,"

he concluded, mirroring a contemporary review of the gala which compared the antiquity

invoked by the Khmer dancers "from a fallen country" with "the fabulous

Ophir of the Greeks."

For Rodin, the dancers fused all he admired in classical statuary with the enigma

and suppleness of the Far East. They were fragments of Angkor "come to life"

- the living incarnation of an apparent contradiction that remained a central preoccupation

of his work: that of "motion in stillness."

In his artwork, this fascination merged light, fluid strokes in diverse media in

a bid to capture light through experimentation with color tints. These features are

all hallmarks of the 150 sketches that emerged from Rodin's trip to Marseille.

The search for more than a token monument to Rodin's encounter with the dancers,

in his sculpture, has proved elusive, yielding nothing but a clay hand, thought to

be modeled on a classical gesture. But the dancers made a pivotal impact on his work

and interests. After their departure for Cambodia he transposed his fascination to

the Japanese dancer Hanako, whom he met in Marseille through the American music-hall

actress Loie Fuller. Rodin completed more than 50 portraits of her, as well as clay

masks. For years thereafter, his work focused on studies of ballet dancers and on

drawings. In 1922, Hanako, Loie Fuller and Ith, the first dancer in the Cambodian

royal ballet, came together again in Marseille, performing on the steps of the most

extravagant replica of Angkor to date, at that year's Colonial International Exhibition.

Rodin was not there to record them.

Just three months after Sarraut laid the stone for Cambodia's museum in August 1917,

the artist who had devoted his life to capturing luminosity and movement in his art,

froze to death. Refused a room at the museum to which he had bequeathed his works

the previous year, Rodin died of cold and neglect in Paris, awaiting a coal delivery

that never came.

Were he alive today, Rodin would have delighted in the current exhibition of his

work in Phnom Penh, meticulously labeled in French and Khmer, at the National Museum,

and in the sensitive photography of San Remo, who covered Rodin's story for the fashionable

journal Illustration. He may have wondered at the selection of his sketches, at the

sequence in which they have been hung, and at the lack of broader artistic or historical

context in the signage. He might have fretted at the apparent inequity between the

closely guarded exhibition hall his work now commands, and the comparative status,

elsewhere in the museum, of what to him remained the dancers' artistic twin - Angkorean

statuary. But like other visitors to the exhibition, he would have found cause for

optimism in the implications that this initiative has for future such exchanges.

* Penny Edwards is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at University of

California, Berkeley and author of Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation (Hawai'i

University Press).

* Rodin and the Khmer Dancers - His Last Passion, is at the National Museum, St 13,

Phnom Penh, until February 11, 2007.

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