KING SISOWATH & THE OPENING OF KHMER DANCE

King Norodom died in 1904 and his half-brother Sisowath was crowned that same year.  The new king inherited the semblances of a monarch and, with that, stewardship of the palace dancers.  Two-thirds of them, in mourning of his brother’s death—or simply in desire for life beyond the palace walls—followed a Khmer court custom and left the reclusive realities of the troupe.[256]

That same year, George Bois, tasked with curating the Indochina Exhibit at the Colonial Exhibition to be held in Marseille, came to Cambodia in search of Khmer dancers.  Refused by King Sisowath, Bois found dancers in the troupe of Naval Colonel de Monteiro, a Khmer of mixed-Portuguese ancestry.  His search for more dancers led him to a prison, where he discovered that “many [dancers] were also dismissed [from the palace] for reasons of financial necessity due to the smaller annual pension of the new king . . . many of these dancers ‘were immediately seized for debts by the Cambodian prison’ and incarcerated.”[257]  Finally, at the request of the Governor-General of French Indochina, King Sisowath agreed to send his dancers as well.[258]

 

The numbers vary, but Cravath mentions “forty-two dancers, eight chanters, eight dressers, two jewelers, ten male musicians, and two clowns”[259]—or by some accounts, nearly 100 artists.[260]  This was just a bit more than the "typical" dance troupe Bois describes, which was made of one kru lakhaon, ten neay rong characters, six yeak characters, two performers of sva, ten neang characters, and twelve minor dancers accompanied by nineteen chorus members and a ten-member pin peat.[261] 

Nonetheless, the dancers arrived with King Sisowath in Marseille on June 11, 1906.  They were met by an enthusiastic city, one that had been tantalized weeks before with curious details about their lives.  Indeed, the French craving for the exotic was duly satiated and inflamed by the dancers, who caused a considerable stir upon the public imagination.  Bois wrote: "Every evening more than thirty thousand people crowded around the stage to watch the marvelous dolls, with their perfect figures, undulate, shimmering with rivulets of gold and precious stones, in the dazzle of electric lights.  It was crazy.  Cambodia, its King, and his dancers dominated every conversation.  Photographers swarmed the city like famished locusts.  The newspapers of Paris and Marseille vied to snap the most seductive picture."[262]

A riot ensued in Paris when 5,000 tickets—3,800 more than the seats available— were issued to a single scheduled performance organized by Georges Leygues, the Minister of Colonies.  And “order was restored by the police only when Princess Soumphady ‘resentfully’ allowed a second performance at midnight.”[263]  It seems the entire spectrum of French society saw the dancers, including the esteemed artist August Rodin.  He passionately sketched and painted the dancers, following them from Paris back to Marseilles.

When looking at the sketches and watercolors by Rodin, I get a sense of sound, musicality, and uninhibited movement.  And, when these images were exhibited in Cambodia for the first time, the late Soth Sam On—a former star performer of demon roles in the palace, my teacher’s teacher whose very own teacher was on that 1906 tour—said, “If you look to the position of the arm, it is not correct . . . It is too high.  But the energy is there.”[264]

 

Very importantly then, Rodin’s images serve as critical evidence for the aesthetic and formal connections of Khmer dance of the modern era to its roots at the courts of Angkor (and before).  When looking at one watercolor featuring five dancers, for example, the three front-facing dancers who lift their legs bear incredible similarities to the sculpted Khmer images of yogini, apsara, and other dancers.  This is no coincidence as, like the sculptors who came before him, Rodin was working to capture the most dynamic image possible as he translated three-dimensional bodies dancing in space and time into a static, two-dimensional format.

 

The Angkorean sculptural convention to denote dance then, often with one leg raised in the air or one ball of the foot on the ground (or sometimes both)—like the preference to depict the hands in chib—is equivalent to the Greek concept of contrapposto.  It is used to denote dance because it implies the energetic height in the transition of movement, “encompass[es] the tension as a figure changes from resting on a given leg to walking or running upon it.”[265]  By contrast, one can see the relative rigidity that results when a dancing figure is carved frontally with both feet on the ground at the tenth-century temple of Pre Rup.

Of the dancers, the sculptor remarked:

“There are stones so ancient that you can no longer date them.  When you see them, you think of millennia, and here life, living nature, is producing the same effect.  These Cambodians have given us everything that antiquity can contain, their own antiquity, which is just as valuable as ours.  We have lived three days from three thousand years ago.  It is impossible to see the human being brought to such perfection.  Only they and the Greeks have done it.”[266]

Cambodian dancers by August Rodin. Copyright of Musée Rodin, used under terms of Fair Use.

Dancing figures carved onto the walls of the Bayon.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Marble copy of Polykleitos’s Doryphoros in contrapposto; the original was created in the fourth century BCE.  By User:Tetraktys [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Dancing figures at the temple of Pre Rup, feet firmly planted on the ground lend a relative sense of weight and rigidity.  Tenth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Rodin’s words further demonstrate the success of the 1906 tour and reveal a “revolutionary notion that an exotic and totally unfamiliar art form could be understood and appreciated on its own terms” in European society and culture.[267]  On their departure, he wrote, "What an emptiness they left for me . . . I thought they had taken away the beauty of the world . . . I followed them to Marseille; I would have followed them as far as Cairo."[268] Bois also quotes the sculptor as saying: "'These dancers understand, I'm sure of it, and are incapable of descending from this superior art.  There are great artists among the dance mistresses.  Even the children are great artists.  It's frightening!'"[269] 

 

His sentiments, however, were in contrast to many French understandings of the dance at the time.  During the second tour to France in 1922, for example, the royal dancers performed for a French audience whose excitement for foreign curiosities had waned.  

 

Back in Cambodia, this dip in interest was certainly mirrored by French colonials.  And, faced with French ideas of modernization—as well as a smaller salary—King Sisowath allowed the dancers to leave the court at any time.  He even encouraged the younger of them to go to school.[270]  George Groslier, in his 1912 book Danseuses cambodgiennes anciennes et modernes, wrote at this time:

“The Khmer dancers are at a point of death.  They are no longer anything but shadows.  They are wearing out their last costumes.  The princesses sell their jewels or take them to the pawn-shop . . . and the women . . . no longer weave the beautiful sampots of years gone by.”[271]

Such a devastating picture is unlikely however, and only reveals colonial French imaginings of Khmer people as disconnected from our ancient legacy.  They used the temples of Angkor to rival the cultural splendors of India that were now under British domain;[272] yet they often refused to believe, and often expressed their disbelief, that Khmer people had built the temples ourselves.  More than anything, Groslier’s implication that the king was incapable of taking care of the art form reflected a challenge to the sovereign’s rule, as well as an assertion of French authority.  In fact, as we will later see, the French would vie for control of the dancers and the cultural and political legacy that they represented.  

Thus, it only makes sense that Groslier’s grave description of the situation was a far cry from reality.  Bois, for example, mentioned:

 

"[The] King of Cambodia . . . with his natural expansiveness and generosity, offered to lend the gold of his coffers and his splendid jewels for display in the Cambodian pavilion's showcases at the exhibition . . . As promised, the King placed his most beautiful jewels under the protection of the Commissioner of Cambodia, whom he trusted.  The diadems, bracelets, rings, chains, and cups, enriched with diamonds and precious stones, the diplomatic gifts, and the rest were worth an estimated eight hundred thousand francs.  The curious could stare in wonder at this treasure of astonishing artistic originality through a cage, which contained the showcase, which contained the jewels.  The cage was closed at night and guarded by several watchmen.  This was perhaps the only time in the history of the Expositions that every precious object was accounted for.  Every one returned safely to Phnom Penh and the coffers of the Royal palace."[273]

Groslier himself would later say:

 

"This mime is clothed not in tinsel but in splendid fabrics, with pure gold and real gems.  Touch them, weigh them: fifteen necklaces, ten rings, collars and armbands, the oval belt buckle.  It's all in precious materials.  No need for any artifice to make it seem real . . . The actress is thus everything the spectator could wish for.  She is, in a very real sense, a reality that has matched a fiction.  Through jewels and costumes and the very role she plays, her actual value is equal to her suggested value."[274]

 

Even with its reduction in size then, accounts by many visitors show there were almost always at least one hundred and sometimes several hundred dancers in the court during the more than twenty-year reign of King Sisowath.  The king used seven to eight percent of his personal budget to maintain their salaries, as well as their costumes and jewels.[275]  Furthermore, during his reign, dancers began performing in the newly built Chan Chhaya Pavilion and Pochani Pavilion, which replaced the old rong ram (dance theater) built by King Norodom.

The accessibility of film technologies would give us valuable documentation of the splendor of the royal dancers during this time.  In fact, they are among the first films of Khmer dance in its more than 1,000-year history.  Even more, footage from the period shows less-refined provincial troupes led by retired court dancers who very likely performed for the beginnings of a tourist industry.

Old film of King Sisowath's dancers.  Source: YouTube.

King Sisowath died in 1927 and was succeeded by his son Monivong.  During the prior’s reign, familiar names to many Khmer dancers today start to appear.  Lok Khun Meak was a star dancer during this time and Chea Samy, my teacher’s teacher, would arrive in the palace at the age of six in 1925.  She would later perform Robam Chhmar at the monarch’s funeral.  For the first time ever, Khmer dance had been opened to and shared with the world beyond Southeast Asia.  And, in this, the dance form increasingly became a visible part of our world heritage.

NEXT

[256] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 167.

[257] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 169.

[258] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 170.

[259] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 170.

[260] Ghosh, Amitav.  Dancing in Cambodia & Other Essays.  Penguin Books India, 2010.  Page 1.

[261] Bois, George.  "Cambodian Dancers in France." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 303 - 321. 

[262] Bois, George.  "Cambodian Dancers in France." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 303 - 321. 

[263] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 171.

[264] Kinetz, Erika. "Rodin Show Visits Home of Artist’s Muses." The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Dec. 2006. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/27/arts/design/27rodi.html?fta=y&_r=0.

[265] "Contrapposto." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrapposto.

[266] Bois, George.  "Cambodian Dancers in France." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 303 - 321. 

[267] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 172.

[268] Ghosh, Amitav.  Dancing in Cambodia & Other Essays.  Penguin Books India, 2010.  Pages 33 – 34.

[269] Bois, George.  "Cambodian Dancers in France." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 303 - 321. 

[270] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 173.

[271] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 173.

[272] Robson, Kathryn and Yee, Jennifer. France and "Indochina".  Lexington Books, 2005.  Page 16.

[273] Bois, George.  "Cambodian Dancers in France." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 329 - 348.

[274] Groslier, George.  "Theatre and Dance in Cambodia." Cambodian Dancers, edited by Kent Davis, DatASIA Press, 2011, pp. 303 - 321.  

[275] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 178.