Vintage Photographs Capture the Beauty of Classical Dance

When George Groslier first approached Nou Nam in March 1927 with the idea of photographing her while she performed Khmer classical dance, she refused. “People no longer know how to dance, she told me with disdain,” he later wrote.

A few minutes later, the dancer—a favorite of both King Norodom and King Sisowath—relented.

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Photos of Khmer classical dancers printed on canvas are exhibited at the Institut Francais. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Then in her 50s, Nou Nam agreed to help the photographer archive Khmer classical dance movements in photographic form.

As he began to capture the former star dancer, George Groslier realized that “the hand stops two centimeters higher than on Wednesday, and the head turns two degrees more than in Nou Nam’s day,” showing how the dance form had evolved.

For Khmer classical dancers whose slightest movements are painstakingly executed, this was profoundly troubling. Master dancers watching Nou Nam became agitated, he wrote.

Capturing these changing styles for posterity was Groslier’s goal. He wanted to provide a historical record for generations to come.

Khmer classical dancers then were part of the palace household and, concerned about the future of the dance when King Sisowath died, Groslier obtained permission to photograph the Royal Ballet.

Over sessions at the National Museum, he photographed the aging Nou Nam as well as the younger dancers while they performed. And through all those shots, he wrote, “there rose up a dancer, steeped in the nobility of the past, robust with all the strength of the present.”

He would immortalize dance movements in hundreds of photographs.

These 900 images taken on glass negatives by Groslier—who founded and managed the National Museum until his death in 1945—were somewhat lost at the museum.

That is, until the 2000s, when Bertrand Porte of the French research institution Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO) and his colleagues at the museum’s restoration workshop rediscovered and rescued them.

Some of the photos were first exhibited at the National Museum in late 2011, and then shown in New York and Paris.

Now, 90 years after Groslier took the images, his work will tonight go on display again in Phnom Penh.

Upon hearing of the collection a few months ago, Bernard Millet, the French Embassy’s cultural attache, asked the museum whether the Institut Francais could exhibit them again for today’s public. “We know that the importance of dance here is of nearly cosmic proportions,” he said.

Museum Director Kong Vireak agreed. “It’s a good opportunity to show the treasures of the National Museum, the treasures of photographic archives that many Cambodians do not know,” he said.

Holding the exhibition has involved a great deal of work on the part of the museum, the EFEO and the Institut Francais—with Unesco support thrown in.

The exhibition “Kbach Roam, Dance Patterns” includes the photos displayed during the museum’s 2011 exhibition plus additional ones that have been printed in large format on canvas. Each one is so vibrant, the dancers from years ago look as if they could jump out of the frames to perform.

Along with the photos on exhibit, 467 photos out of the 900 in the museum collection will be shown in a slideshow in a mini-theater setting. This slide presentation, Mr. Bertrand of the EFEO said, “actually is the heart of the exhibition. This truly is the recreation of dance sequences done during the classification of these photos.”

“These series, each one consisting of numerous photographs, produce in fact an impression…of life,” said Lucie Labbe, a French dancer and anthropologist who has studied Khmer classical dance for a decade and worked on the dance photo collection. “One can actually feel the movement.”

Regarding movement differences between those dancers of 90 years ago and today’s Khmer classical dancers, one notes a certain evolution but still can recognize today’s movements, Ms. Labbe said.

Of course, there are differences in styles, she said. “Ways to execute [movements] have changed a little. Costumes also are similar as a whole, but I believe there are fashions that correspond to the different eras.”

To illustrate this, two contemporary Khmer classical dancers, Serey Van Kossan and Sok Nalis, will perform in the costumes and style of 90 years ago at the opening tonight.

As for Groslier’s fear that Khmer classical dance would disappear, similar concerns have surfaced on and off over the years, Ms. Labbe said.

“And so far, they have been proven wrong,” she said.

Where: Institut Francais, #218 St. 184, Phnom Penh

When:  Tonight at 6:30 p.m.

Free admission

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