I've been reluctant to publish a placeholder, but work on this post has proceeded slowly. Since learning that Auguste Rodin had witnessed Cambodian dancers perform at Marseilles on the occasion of the Colonial Exposition of 1906 in that city, I'd decided to look into it and pick out some threads to follow. I hadn't known that Rodin had been exposed to this deeply ritualistic art form, though prior to that serendipitous encounter at Marseilles he ostensibly had no knowledge of it. Deeply moved and inspired, the great artist made a number of pencil sketches of the dancers in situ, applying color afterward. I gather that Rodin made more than 30 drawings of the dancers, along with one or two depicting Sisowath: members of the troupe were part of an extensive entourage accompanying the Cambodian king on his official visit to France that year.
Cambodian dance is deeply implicated in the mythology of the Khmer people, as attested by the sculptural friezes adorning the ancient temple walls at Angkor, and on temple sites and artifacts that pre-date the Angkor era. It's been argued that Khmer dancers are associated with fertility rites, perhaps especially in the earlier period (prior to the 6th century of the Common Era). But there is an interesting association as well with the widespread mythic phenomenon of dragon killing (in Khmer culture the dragon is represented by the naga).
According to Paul Kravath, a scholar of Cambodian dance drama,
At the bottom of the sea a great naga serpent stretches the entire forty-nine yards of this mythical ocean... Above this, the naga appears a second time -- a convention suggesting a later action -- supported by two groups of figures. On the left are ninety-two yakkha (ogres) pulling on the head; on the right are eight-eight deva (gods) pulling on the tail. The naga, the most frequently used oldest Khmer symbol of the earth's forces, is wound around the stone, mountainlike seat of a four-armed deity. The effect of the resultant churning is seen along the top of the carving: thousands of flying dancers emerge from the ocean's foam.
Calvert Watkins has traced a fundamentally significant world myth in his book, How to Kill a Dragon, and I wonder whether the Khmer version, with the celestial dancers (apsara) and the naga serpent at its core, may correlate with the general framework of the dragon myth, though it seems that Kravath spins the story differently. But my purpose is not to explicate Khmer myth in any detail, but rather tease out some possible implications of Rodin's encounter with Khmer dancers at Marseilles. This will likely entail some further consideration of Khmer dance, alongside a glancing look at Japanese No theater. The influence of Asian art on Western culture during Rodin's lifetime is large, the subject vast. Not to say that it's beyond my reach in any case.
A word about my personal involvement with Cambodian dance and dancers. I began working with members of the Khmer community sometime around the year 2000, when I was hired by an arts agency in the Washington, D.C. area to help make meaningful contacts within the diverse cultural communities there. At some point, I wandered into a Cambodian dance practice at one of the local community centers, chatted with the parents in attendance that day (the classes were partly intended to introduce young American-born Khmer to essential elements of Khmer culture), and after many more visits I'd established strong relationships with community members, and with the dance instructors – all of the latter widely known within the Khmer diaspora, some whose original training was with the Royal Cambodian Ballet in Phnom Penh, a prestigious company and training center associated with the royal palace. Several of these dancers had defected some years ago during a performance tour of the USA. I subsequently studied Khmer language at Madison, Wisconsin over two consecutive summers, and have continued to establish and maintain relationships with members of the Khmer community since that time.
I'm not a scholar of Cambodian dance traditions, so my comments here will be mainly subjective, based on personal experience. That said, here goes...
Cambodian dance is ritualized and patterned, whose gestures, postures, and movements have been established and formalized through the centuries. Dancers convey meaning and emotion and narrative elements as well, through facial expression, and through highly stylized gestures and movements of their bodies, especially their hands and feet. In classical Cambodian dance, the narrative component of the dances is drawn from the Reamker, which is regarded by some as the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. While there are broad similarities and points of correspondence between the two, the Khmer version is distinctively Khmer – much as the dance itself is distinctive and independent from classical Indian dance, despite broad similarities and early scholarship arguing for the derivative nature of the Khmer tradition.
My feeling is that anyone who initially encounters Cambodian traditional dance will be overtaken by the beauty, the precision, and the skill of the dancers, and will readily appreciate the challenges they face in entering into the spirit of the characters they portray. The dancers are assisted in this by wearing traditional costumes, which serve as guideposts to the characters, and perhaps especially by wearing intricate and beautifully crafted crowns and masks, which in this case are made by one of the master dance instructors (who then was a prominent and influential member of that particular dance company).
When considering which direction to take for this post, I was initially seeking to understand why Khmer dance may have mattered so much to Rodin at that point in his career (which had been languishing). I don't know that I can provide that understanding here except in a rather perfunctory way. But the Rodin material was suggestive, and I found myself thinking of other cultural traditions, such as Cambodian shadow theater, Japanese No theater, and even traditional Hawaiian concepts of cultural knowledge and transmission. I may choose to explore these here, searching for connections. Meanwhile, I'd suggest that Khmer dance is indeed very much akin to Cambodian shadow theater – the dancers wear elaborate, highly stylized costumes and crowns (and sometimes, masks too); they move with precision but always according to an established or routinized system; they enact traditional narratives, in many if not all cases based on the Reamker. Perhaps especially, they affect to achieve an almost otherworldly, suprahuman effect. And the puppeteers must dance as they contrive to make their shadow puppets appear to dance, all action taking place behind the white screen. Both traditions date to the pre-Angkor era; both traditions are sacred to the Khmer people. Both dance and shadow theater are accompanied by the classical pin peat orchestra, consisting of a number of traditional Cambodian instruments. And both are very popular with tourists! According to puppet historian Kenneth Gross, the shadow animator translates their own "thought, will, gesture, and voice" to the puppets, and these are "made visible the more strongly for his invisibility, showing us gods, demons, ghosts, giants, and warring clans and nobles." Strong magic indeed!
How then does dance differ from shadow theater? There appear to be many points of convergence, but what are the differences between the two traditions? There are historical explanations for the rise of shadow theater, linked to the fate of the living female dancers at Angkor -- with shadow theater created to offer important ritual reenactments in their absence. In any case, women have played important and varied roles in collection to the Cambodian king. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese merchant who visited Cambodia in 1295 C.E., observed the royal dancers , reporting in his Record of Cambodia that,
In the eighth month there is an "ailan", a dance that selected female dancers perform daily in the palace. There are boar fights and elephant fights as well, and again the king invites foreign envoys as spectators. Things go on like this for ten days.
Women might also function as musicians, or as part of the royal guard:
I stayed for a year of so, and saw him [the king] come out four or five times. Each time he came out all his soldiers were gathered in front of him, with people bearing banners, musicians, and drummers following behind him. One contingent was made up of three to five hundred women of the palace. They wore clothes with a floral design and flowers in their coiled-up hair, and carried huge candles, alight even though it was daylight. There were also women of the palace carrying gold and silver utensils from the palace and finely decorated instruments made in exotic and unusual styles, for what purpose I do not know. Palace women carrying lances and shields made up another contingent as the palace guard. Then there were carts drawn by goats, deer, and horses, all of them decorated with gold.
This other aspect of women's roles, where they participate in the protection of the king, was attested centuries later, at the time that Rodin observed the Cambodian dancers at Marseilles. During his rolay visit, King Sisowath was attended by Xavier Paoli, who served as a sort of interlocutor for the king. Paoli interestingly calls attention to a sort of gender ambiguity of the dancers:
Sisowath's dancing girls are not exactly pretty, judged by our own standard of feminine beauty. With their hard and close-cropped hair, their figures like those of striplings, their thin, muscular legs like those of young boys, their arms and hands like those of little girls, they seem to belong to no definite sex. They have something of the child about them, something of the young warrior of antiquity and something of the woman. Their usual dress, which is half feminine and half masculine, consisting of the famous sampot worn in creases between their knees and their hips and of a silk shawl confining their shoulders, crossed over the bust and knotted at the loins, tends to heighten this curious impression. But, in the absence of beauty, they possess grace, a supple, captivating, royal grace, which is present in their every attitude and gesture.
In fact, to my knowledge these dances were traditionally performed only by females, who played either male or female roles within a given dance. Over the course of centuries and likely due to historical contingencies, however, male dancers were gradually integrated into the performances -- though even today women dancers may play either male or female roles (sometimes depending on availability of male dancers).
I continue to stray back into a discussion of Cambodian dance, but before closing this post I want to gather in other materials of interest to the subject.
However, the answer to this question lies beyond the scope of this one post, and there are other avenues of interest to explore briefly here.