Dancing in the Light
With MAADS # LivingCambodia
21 August 2017
Ninety years ago, a French civil servant passionate of khmer arts and culture, asks several dancers from the Khmer Royal Ballet to come to the Albert Sarraut Museum that he has just created in Phnom Penh (today the National Museum of Cambodia), for a poignant photography session – on more than 800 photographic glass plates, George Groslier intends to immortalize the essential gestures, body movements and choreographic sequences of a timeless art, the Khmer sacred dance.
Does he fear that the improvident Kings will not be able to maintain anymore a ballet- harem secluded in the Royal Palace? Is he aiming at making this ancestral mastery of “exibility and memory”(Groslier’s summarization of the royal dancers’ technique) more accessible to the common men and women? The Royal Palace was just a leafy alley away from the Museum, as it still is today, and Groslier has already designed a specific pavilion where the ballet instructors and the “actresses-dancers”, as he calls them, young and older, could perfect their art far from the Palace intrigues. It will never happen.
Back to present days, by a crisp Phnom Penh morning. In the Museum workshop, where the floor tiles are exactly the same than the ones we can see on these 1927 photographs, Bertrand Porte, the current curator, shows us a striking statue of Goddess Kali from Koh Ker archeological site, whose pedestal has just been found and reassembled. The bust itself, gorgeously feminine and with one of the four arms holding a small severed head, was retrieved and brought to Phnom Penh by… the same Groslier. It feels like the exploration, reconstruction and decoding of Khmer cultural treasures is a never-ending process. Later, in his subdued office, we notice a simple and harmonious chest of drawers that also appears in the background of Groslier’s photographic testimony to the ancient art of dance in Cambodia.
And everywhere, at each step, history echoes history. In 1927, Groslier has tracked down senior dancers who have retired from the daily service of the Royal Ballet, among them the legendary Nou Naam, to whom he will devote several inspired pages of his seminal essay, “Avec les danseuses royales du Cambodge”.
In 1911, a younger Groslier, not yet burdened with the charge of what will become the National Museum, has sketched several young rising stars of the ballet, in particular Nou Naam. The ink and pencil drawing is full of youthful optimism, and emphasizes the dancer ́s surreal beauty. Sixteen years later, the photographic approach is all about exertion, concentration, technical excellence.
“What we have here, moreover, is a perfect reflection of Groslier ́s intellectual straight-forwardness. Groslier ́s vision of the sacred dancers is remarkably humble and respectful. “In his mind and his actions, the Museum was ‘about the Khmer people, for them, by them’“, explains Kent Davis, American researcher and publisher who has tremendously contributed to the rediscovery of Groslier’s body of work: “he was reluctant to even appear on one single photograph among these prodigious, almost divine artists. The Royal dancers did not even strike a pose with Khmer dignitaries. The one and only instance of royal dancers posing with someone else, to my knowledge, was with a child: Nicole, George Groslier’s daughter.”
Printings from the 1927 series are exhibited at Phnom Penh French Institute until September 7, 2017.