"I contemplated them in ecstasy," raved Rodin when the classical dancers
of Cambodia took France by storm in 1906. His pictures of their whirlwind visit to
the Colonial Exhibition in Paris with King Sisowath form part of a display on the
Khmer ballet from 1866 to the present, at the Alliance Francaise until Oct. 15.
Feted, painted, photographed and sketched, the dancers dazzled the sculptor who wept
when they departed. "I was in the shadow and in the cold. I thought they had
taken with them all the beauty of the world," lamented Rodin. Later, in Cambodia,
the record of that beauty vanished, along with many dancers, during the Pol Pot regime.
Since opening the Alliance Francaise in 1980, director Yves Blandin has returned
to Paris to track down early images of the dancers about whom he enthuses as much
as Rodin did. At the Musee Guimet and Musee de L'Homme he unearthed old photographs,
sepia prints, books, engravings, watercolors and glass negative plates.
Scouring the bookstalls on the Left Bank, he found old postcards from the 1950s,
complete with postage stamps of five centimes depicting Indo Chine, Republique Francaise.
The postcards show female dancers, barely out of childhood, posed artfully in their
exotic costumes, with short haircuts. "Favorite dancers of the King of Cambodia"
The exhibition of about sixty pictures is in honor of the current troupe, trained
at the School of Fine Arts which reopened in 1981, who left for France in September
to inaugurate the International Festival of Francophones in Limoges. As delicate
as that famed porcelain, they attended the opening, standing in front of the early
photographs and imitating poses.
The troupes, who were under royal patronage, passed down their dances, scenes from
the Indian legends of the Ramayana and Mahabarata, from generation to generation.
The jewel-encrusted performances date from the Khmer empire at Angkor, where carvings
of the Apsaras have beguiled visitors ever since. They existed solely for the pleasure
of the god-kings, and later the dancers lived in the royal compound. Apparently,
in King Monivong's time, conditions were cramped, and they gossiped and schemed,
frittering away their time like harem concubines. But when they performed at Angkor
Wat, in the cool of night, by candlelight, a tradition which then-Prince Sihanouk
maintained for his lavish parties until the war, they were sublime.
Copies of drawings by Fromont show King Sisowath and his corps de ballet in the temple
in 1907. A reproduction of a print shows King Norodom in 1866, honoring Doudart de
Largree and Louis Delaporte, who followed Henri Mouhot, "discoverer" of
Angkor Wat, with a special performance of the ballet. There is a black and white
photograph from the 1960s of Princess Bopha Devy, eldest daughter of King Sihanouk,
dancing. Her elegance and grace have not diminished and when she attended the opening
of the exhibition the young dancers regarded her with respect.
An article reveals that the darlings who enthralled Rodin did occasionally put a
foot wrong: en route to the celebrated photographer Baudouin, Princess Symphady,
Sisowath's daughter, leading the troupe, stepped in some cow dung down a dusty alley.
Mad with rage, she threw her arms in the air and flung herself on the ground, whereupon
all 60 adorable little dancers threw themselves into the dust, decked in their finery,
and rolled unceremoniously around. "They were very sweet, the Cambodians,"
it concluded, "but they weren't without their shortcomings."
More restrained was a photograph of a dancer from 1970, one of Blandin's finds in
the Musee de L'Homme. Entitled Madame Menh Kossony in the role of Mony Mekhala, it
shows her perfect profile, one leg raised behind, arms curved and her long fingers
arched back. Blandin presumed the beautiful woman was dead. But he learned later
that she was still alive and to be found at the Front de Bassac theater rehearsing
with the dancers. He went over with the photograph. When she saw it, she was moved
to tears, as she has no souvenir of her early career. "I was almost in tears
myself," confessed Blandin, recalling the scene. After the exhibition, he will
donate the picture to her, in its gilt frame. The rest he plans to give to the theater.
Performing periodically at the Front de Bassac, the dancers train at the School of
Fine Arts in Phnom Penh under the tutelage of Proeung Chhieng, Dean of Choreography,
who has worked tirelessly since it reopened. He was a dancer with the royal troupe
before the Pol Pot regime and was among the three hundred out of three thousand who
survived. "Art is the most important thing," he claims. "It preserves
our culture." People are born to die, he adds, but the country never dies.
The Alliance Francaise has revived memories which keep Cambodia's culture alive,
while paying tribute to France's artists and their role in this country's traditions.