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The Making of ‘Little Sap & Monsieur Rodin’

Michelle Lord, an author based in Texas, was among the few to have discovered the connection between Cambodia and French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Many Cambodians have never heard of the famous 20th century sculptor, let alone know about Rodin’s love of Cambodian artistry. Because of Lord’s appreciation of art and ongoing quest for stories that preserve her adopted Cambodian daughter’s legacy, she decided to write her first illustrated children’s book.

Inspired by actual events, the new book gives us a glimpse of Rodin’s brief encounter with Cambodia’s royal dancers 100 years ago. The English-language book was published in April. VOA’s Manilene Ek has the scoop and Sivone Kang translates.

It began in the summer of 2003, when Michelle Lord, a mother of three children, came across postcards of Auguste Rodin’s pencil drawings from the early 1900’s. Immediately, she was inspired to write her book having discovered the untold story behind Rodin’s Cambodian dancer sketches.

Michelle Lord: “I have adopted a Cambodian girl and I am always looking for anything to reflect her heritage. I came across Rodin’s drawings on the Internet, and when I researched further I thought it would make an interesting children’s book.”

It was in those same old postcards that the character of ‘Little Sap’ came alive in Lord’s imagination. She explains.

Michelle Lord: “I saw a dark-skin girl that looked a little different from the other dancers, and I imagined her to be little Sap.”

In 1906, Auguste Rodin met and fell in love with King Sisowath’s troupe of royal ballet dancers, while they were in Paris to perform at the Colonial Exhibition. Rodin was so deeply moved by the royal dancers that he followed them to Marseille-, which is now the second largest city in France. The book tells a familiar story, but focuses on Rodin’s relationship with a young outcast dancer with low self-esteem.

Michelle Lord: “It’s about a girl from the rural who left her family to study with the royal ballet and has to stay in the palace. She doesn’t fit in and doesn’t know how to dance. When she traveled in 1906 to France- she met Rodin. When she saw what he saw in her- that’s when she realized she is a dancer and felt accepted”.

Within the short time he spent with the dancers, Rodin was able to compile 150 sketches, forty of which are being displayed for the first time at the National Museum in Cambodia. Lord, who has never seen Rodin’s sketches in person, hopes to continue her efforts to conserve Cambodia’s cultural heritage through her writing.

Michelle Lord: “Cambodia is a beautiful country and I hope that they are able to preserve their arts and culture for future generations. I hope that they [Cambodians] appreciate and enjoy the book and I do hope that I’ve made them proud [of their country].”

Lord’s book has shed new light on a 100-year-old meeting of Cambodians and French art, offering fresh perspectives for children and adults alike. Rodin's exhibition at the National Museum in Cambodia, is sponsored by the French government, and will end on February 11th, 2007.