Rodin The Dancers of
King Sisowath of Cambodia

by Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
"Cambodian Dancer" (1906)

I have spent the four most wonderful days of my life with my pretty friends. The little Javanese girls who were here at the exhibition had already pleased me, and now the delightful Cambodian princesses have reawakened my old impressions and increased them a hundred times. They have brought antiquity to life again for me. They have shown me, in reality, the beautiful gestures, the beautiful movements of the human body which the ancients knew how to capture in art. They suddenly immersed me in nature, revealed a completely new aspect and taught me that artists here below have no other task than to observe nature and find sustenance at its source. I am a man who had devoted his entire life to the study of nature and who infinitely admires the works of antiquity; so you can imagine how such a superb spectacle must have affected me, a spectacle that opened my eyes to antiquity again. These monotonous, slow dances to the rhythms of strange music have an extraordinary, a perfect beauty, like the beauty of Greece but with its own special quality. The Cambodian dancers have revealed movements to me that I have never found anywhere before, either in the art of sculpture or in nature. For instance, that longitudinal motion they create by stretching out their arms, turning their hands up, and spreading their fingers, producing a slow undulation from one end of the cross they form to the other, a wave motion that is also transmitted to chest and shoulders and which creates a continual opposition of the curves of their arms, one forming a convex and the other a concave arc. Or the pose I have sketched here, showing the dancer crouched down almost to the ground, leaning forward, one bent knee touching her breast and her feet thrown out behind her. Isn't this wonderfully lovely and new? This is what convinces me that my little girlfriends are as beautiful as the art of the ancients. And if they are beautiful, it is because their movements are right, in a perfectly natural way.— What makes a movement right is impossible to define. A wrong movement in sculpture is the same thing as a false note in music. But what is a false note? You have to have an ear for it... Well, and in our case you have to have an eye. All you can say is that all movements of the body, if they are harmonious and right, can be inscribed within a geometric pattern whose lines are simple and few. The Greeks had a good feeling for this law, and my little friends do, too. They have a natural knowledge of harmony and truth— or someone has it for them, because I suppose Princess Samphoudry, who directs them, and King Sisowath, who supports them, must be great artists [?] in their own right. Where do they derive this knowledge? They simply obey nature, their own nature, instead of striving for the rare and artificial. I immediately recognized their superiority the evening I saw them at the Pré-Catalan. They had stopped dancing; they were being applauded, but lukewarmly, because Paris audiences are no longer capable of recognizing true beauty. After them came so-called "Greek dances"— a crying shame, really a crying shame, because everything about them was false, contrived, artificial... Until the 18th century we had, besides a respect for tradition, a love of classical harmony. Then a school arose which, abjuring nature, changed all that, and which we have to thank for our present bad taste. And this bad taste is spreading everywhere, onto the streets and into our houses, into art as much as furniture!... In my beginnings, when I had a model come I always used to ask her right off what studios she had "worked" in. I saw immediately if she had come from the Academy. As soon as she climbed onto the podium I saw her assume one of those attitudes she had learned there, and it was always wrong. How could it be otherwise? What do they teach you at the Academy? Composition! But composition is theatrics, the dramatic science of lies. So let's stick with nature— it contains true, eternal science and is a source that never fails. In nature truth is always to be found. It is a sign of weakness to rely on imagination. Imagination is only the gift of combining memories. But our memories are limited and our imagination is limited; infinite nature, by contrast, continually offers us a great store of new sensations. And if I love Sisowath's little dancers, it is because the rhythmic movements of their bodies have revealed a little corner of nature I had yet to discover... If I were younger, I would have gone back with the dancers to their own country, studied them in peace, and would have tried to make something of their costumes, which bring out their poses and figures so wonderfully... But now it's too late. And I regret this very much, because I'm convinced that an observation of their movements, which appear so new to us, would introduce elements of innovation and intense life into our sculpture. As far as I'm concerned, I can only say that I have learned from them...

— Ernst-Gerhard Güse, Auguste Rodin: Drawings and Watercolors
     translated from the German by John Gabriel & Michael Taylor,
     Rizzoli, New York, 1984, pp. 271-272

Top of Page | Rodin's 1906 Drawings | Rodin: The Idea | Rilke: Dance Gesture | 9 Rodin's "Cambodian Dancers" | 7 "Cambodian Dancers"
12 Cities Dance Tour (8/11-9/29/2001) | UC Berkeley Performance (Sept. 8-9, 2001) | Program Notes | "Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia" (8 articles)
"Subtle Mysteries of Celestials and Mortals" (NY Times Dance Review, 8-23-2001) | "Sensual dance of Cambodia" (SF Chronicle 9-11-2001)
"A new generation of Cambodian dancers" (SF Chronicle 9-2-2001) | "Dancers work to revive Cambodian traditions" (SJ Mercury News 9-8-2001)
"Drumming Tiger, Singing Hunter Rescued" (LA Times 9-9-2001) | "Dance Review: Carrying on a Lyrical Legacy" (LA Times 9-14-2001)
"In Gentle Motions, A Show of Strength" (Washington Post 10-1-2001) | "Cambodian Dancers Jump Ship in D.C." (Washington Post 10-5-2001)
Washington Kennedy Center (Sept. 28-29, 2001) | Cambodian Dancers: 7 Images (Kennedy Center) | Cambodian Dancers: Video 1 (High Bandwidth)
Poetry in Motion | Cambodia Fine Arts | Cambodian Classical Dance | Dance, Spirit of Cambodia: Resources & Links
Amitav Ghosh's Dancing in Cambodia | Dancing in Cambodia Book Review (1998) | Cambodian Dance and Music in America
Danse Celeste: Cambodian Classical Dance & Music | Apsara Ancient Stone Carvings | Rama & the Ramayana: Lessons in Dharma
Rodin Museum, Paris | Rodin Museum, Philadelphia | Rodin Sculpture Garden, Stanford | Rodin Biography | Rodin on the Internet | Home

© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (9-8-2001)