New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 24 May 28 to June 3, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

An Art Reborn

Memory Preserved: Glass Plate Photographs of the Royal Cambodian Dancers
R. Wayne Parsons

Photo by photographer unidentified . Source:
photographer unidentified, 1927.

Suppose you are convinced you know how to construct the perfect society. A complication is that you can’t start with the existing social system, which is thoroughly corrupt and riven with un-resolvable economic and class conflicts, making an incremental approach doomed to failure. One solution, you think, assuming you are ruthless enough, is to extirpate all aspects of the existing society so you can “start from scratch.” That is what the Khmer Rouge did when it ruled Cambodia in its short reign from 1975 to ’79. Cities were emptied and residents forcibly relocated to re-education camps, where those with an education, with any vestige of the old order, were exterminated by working them to death, by starvation, or by outright torture and execution. Since it was a creation of the royal court, Cambodian classical dance was an obvious target, and 80 to 90 percent of the classical dancers perished during Khmer Rouge rule.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge a handful of survivors, aided and encouraged by members of the Cambodian royal family, managed to revive the royal ballet, and we were privileged to have the Cambodian Royal Ballet perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this month as part of the activities and celebrations of “Season of Cambodia: A Living Arts Festival” underway in the city through the end of May. A related exhibition is “Memory Preserved: Glass Plate Photographs of the Cambodian Royal Dancers” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

The story behind these photographs is an interesting one. A Frenchman, George Groslier, was president of the National Museum of Cambodia in the 1920s (remember that Cambodia was a French colony until 1953). Concerned that the dance form was endangered, in 1927 Groslier commissioned an extensive photographic project to document Cambodian dance. Hundreds of photographs were made, all using glass plate negatives, a technology largely obsolete in the West by that time but obviously still alive in Southeast Asia. For reasons that are not clear the plates were shipped to Paris, where they remained, largely forgotten until recently, when the plates were digitized and returned to Cambodia. About 450 plates have been preserved. A selection of about 80 images, all recently printed from the digitized negatives, is displayed at the library. These prints will stay at the library after the exhibition closes, where they will enter the permanent collection.

Photo by photographer unidentified . Source:
photographer unidentified c. 1927.

These are black and white prints of five women dancers photographed against a white backdrop, most often without props but occasionally with a sword or a baton or an elaborate headdress called for in the choreography. The emphasis is on the artistry of the dance, not the artistry of the photography. Indeed, there is a casual quality to most of these images; for example, dancers are wearing street clothes (as opposed to the elaborate costumes for which Cambodian dance is known), and the images typically show details of the studio past the edges of the backdrop, which adds an informal, spontaneous, even contemporary feel to the work. Many images are only of a single dancer, though others show paired dancers performing scenes from the dances. Mostly the dancers stand, though in some poses they crouch and in others are seated on a low platform.

Cambodian dance is stylized, stately, subtle, supple, and sensuous, often dealing with mythical subjects such as battles between gods and giants and the creation myths of the Cambodian people. These photographs provide an introduction to Cambodian classical dance for viewers not familiar with the art form. (More knowledgeable viewers might find the photos a useful source for comparing performance practices then and now.)

The dance is highly symbolic with specific meanings and references ascribed to most of the gestures and positions. The photographs illustrate the most important ones: fingers and palms are bent back toward the arm, legs often apart in a bowlegged stance, a leg often bent behind the body at an extreme angle. Regrettably, the meaning of the gestures and postures and what the dances attempt to communicate are insufficiently explained; interested viewers will have to do their own research.

This is not an exhibition that will appeal strongly to the casual viewer. But it is a must-see show for anyone interested in the arts of Southeast Asia, Cambodian history, dance generally, as well as, of course, Cambodian dance. This exhibition demonstrates that in the face of barbarism all is not necessarily lost. We come away uplifted with the knowledge that one of humanity’s great artistic traditions has survived against relentless odds; these photographs document not a lost art, but one that is alive and well even today.

Memory Preserved: Glass Plate Photographs of the Royal Cambodian Dancers
Curators: Bertrand Porte and Phloeun Prim

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
40 Lincoln Center Plaza
UWS & Uptown         Map

212 870 1630

Sunday, April 28 to
Friday, May 31, 2013
Hours: Tues, Weds, Fri, 11 to 6; Mon, Thurs, 12 to 8; Sat 10 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat