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Monday, April 29, 2013

Rodin and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia

By Robert Jackson Wood

Auguste Rodin sketching a dancer from the Royal Ballet in a Marseille Garden, 1906.

On May 2, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia comes to BAM for three shows as part of the Season of Cambodia festival. If any of you are artists or sculptors, prepare to be inspired. In July of 1906, the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin saw the Royal Ballet of Cambodia perform in France—once in Paris and several times that month in Marseille—and quickly became obsessed. “I contemplated them in ecstasy,” he wrote of the dancers after a binge of sketching that would produce over 150 of his most famous drawings in just a week.

Postcard from the 1906 Marseille Colonial Exposition
The occasion for the ballet’s visit was a number of performances at the 1906 Marseille Colonial Exposition, a massive and at times carnivalesque showcase of French colonial spoils from Southeast Asia and beyond (Cambodia was a protectorate of France from 1863—1941). The ballet made occasional trips to Paris, however, and it was there that Rodin first managed to see them perform. His first attempt was unsuccessful; the sculptor—then 66 years old and hugely famous in France—was turned away at the door for not wearing a tie. But later, in the bucolic setting of the city’s Bois de Boulogne, he finally had his encounter.

Poster for 1906 Marseille Colonial
Rodin was enamored, so much so that two days later, he followed the Royal Ballet back to Marseille without so much as a change of clothes. He’d forgotten his drawing paper, too, and after procuring a bunch of grocery store paper bags to use as a substitute, Rodin set up in the gardens of the dancers’ lodgings and began sketching. “The friezes of Angkor were coming to life before my very eyes,” he remembered, referring to the bas-reliefs inside the massive Khmer temple Angkor Wat—the same reliefs from which the dances and costumes of The Legend of Apsara Mera take their inspiration.

Rodin might very well have exoticized the dancers in the manner of the exposition in Marseille. Yet what he saw instead in their deliberate, graceful movements was something more universal (if from a distinctly western point of view). “The Cambodians have shown us everything that antiquity could have contained,” he remarked. “It is impossible to think of anyone wearing human nature to such perfection; except them and the Greeks.”

Make what you will of the dancers' perfection—and share it with us in the comments below—when they make their much anticipated appearance in the opera house this week.

Auguste Rodin, Cambodian Dancer, 1906.
Graphite pencil, gouache

Auguste Rodin, Cambodian Dancer, 1906.

Auguste Rodin, Cambodian Dancer, 1906.
Pencil, stumping,watercolour, gouache soft lead pencil highlights on paper


  1. GORGEOUS sketches, but Rodin sounds like quite the creepy stalker. I wonder how the dancers felt about this/him.

    1. Apparently, he tried their patience on occasion, but it wasn't anything a few gifts couldn't fix. There's a story about a 14-year-old dancer named Sap who'd asked Rodin for a pair of shoes. Rodin remembered saying "Tomorrow you'll have your shoes, but now pose for me a little more." Rodin again: "I loved these Cambodian girls so much that I didn’t know how to express my gratitude for the royal honour they had shown me in dancing and posing for me. I went to the Nouvelles Galeries to buy a basket of toys for them, and these divine children who dance for the gods hardly knew how to repay me for the happiness I had given them. They even talked about taking me with them.”

  2. Lovely beyond belief, the essence of femininity in serenely feline poses that flow like honey--and hail to the Goddess Mohini who steals the elixir of life from a mere giant and to King Kambu who woos the Apsara. Driving home through the Manhattan skyline, you will note royal hats like his: the Chrysler Bldg spire and the golden John Hancock pyramidal tower.

    Beautiful staging and exquisite costumes and masterly musicianship from singers and percussionists. Discreet flexing of toes in harmony is possible for a member of the audience--the sinuous hands may be only for the very very limber.


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