In Service to Cambodian Heritage

Kent Davis’ book “Cambodian Dancers, Ancient & Modern” not only portrays the royal ballet shortly after dancers had captivated European audiences in the early 20th century, but also talks of a man, George Groslier, who played a key role in the safeguard of artifacts and traditional arts in Cambodia and about whom hardly anything has been written.

As Mr Davis explained in an interview, he started his 466-page work with the idea of reprinting for the first time Groslier’s book by that name on the Royal Palace classical dancers. It was to include the first English version of the text as well as the original French text, along with Groslier’s sketches found in the 30-copy edition released in Paris in 1913.

As he was getting ready to go to press, Mr Davis searched for a photo of Groslier to include in the work. To his surprise, this proved impossible: All he could locate was a blurred image of him, and researchers contacted had nothing on hand.

One person, however, put him in touch with the widow of Groslier’s son, who had no photo but suggested that he speak with Groslier’s daughter, Nicole Rae.

As it turned out, Ms Rae, who will be 93 in June, lives a 30-minute drive from Mr Davis’ home in the US.

When they met, Ms Rae put her photo chest and her mother’s journals at Mr Davis’ disposal. He decided on the spot to write the biography of Groslier, a painter who created and managed until his death in 1945 the National Museum and the Cambodian art school that would become the Royal University of Fine Arts, and include it in the book.

“So the book that I thought was almost done turned into not even being started,” Mr Davis said.

The work begins with Groslier’s book in English laid out with his beautiful black-and-white illustrations, and ends with his French text.

Fascinated by each dancer’s artistry, Groslier writes, “She is all the poetry, charm and enchantment of this people, their most distinctive work.”

But Groslier goes further and describes the lives of those dancers who had arrived at the palace as children and were growing old in the service of the King. Written with a great deal of poetry, his account depicts dancers as people rather than simply presenting a study of Cambodian classical dance.

A 1914 book review by French researcher Henri Parmentier included in Mr Davis’ work would call Groslier’s writing “poetic but often uninstructive outpourings” and admonishes him for not having included scientific footnotes. Groslier was obviously writing for a general, rather than a scholarly, audience.

It should be noted that some Cambodian history background Groslier gives was based on the knowledge of the time, which would be revised in following decades.

Mr Davis’ absorbing biography of Groslier starts with a brief account of Mr Davis’ first visit to–and instant passion for–Angkor and his meeting with Ms Rae. Among other features are a list of Mr Groslier’s publications that ranged from articles on Cambodian traditional arts to novels and a 1913 story on the visit of King Sisowath and the royal ballet to France in 1906.

There also is a question-and-answer interview with former leading dancer Princess Buppha Devi. Regarding training, she talks of the dance school under her patronage in the Angkor park, a school created by the Nginn Karet Foundation and Ravynn Karet-Coxen, but makes no mention of the classical dance curriculum at the Secondary School of Fine Arts and the Royal University of Fine Arts that have trained the country’s best dancers and were under her authority when she was minister of culture.

Released by Mr Davis’ publishing house DatAsia and printed in Cambodia, this work that provides absorbing background about Groslier may soon come out in French. After all, Mr Davis says, he is part of French heritage too.

 

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