At Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, dancers bring Rodin to life

Muriel Maffre, former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, leads a series of performance workshops at the Cantor Arts Center that bring the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin to life.

L.A. Cicero Dancer practicing in front of a painting

Guest lecturer Marina Hotchkiss, director of Lines Contemporary Ballet BFA program, watches Stanford undergraduate Elizabeth Nelson Woodson work through an exercise in an open rehearsal at the Cantor Arts Center.

Auguste Rodin was fascinated by dance. His connection with the celebrated Isadora Duncan is legend. But other dancers flitted through his life as well – Loïe Fuller, the American lead dancer at Paris' Folies Bergère, for example.

"Miss Duncan literally unified life in dance," according to Rodin. "She makes dance attuned to line and she is as unaffected as classical antiquity, which is the synonym of beauty. Suppleness, emotion, these great qualities which are the soul of dance itself: It is art, complete and free."

Stanford is extending the connection with "Rodin and the Dancing Body," an installation and series of performance workshops sponsored by the Cantor Arts Center and offered in conjunction with the center's current exhibition Rodin and America.

In the Cantor Center auditorium, adjacent to the exhibition, drop-by artists are given the opportunity to sketch as they watch Muriel Maffre's dance class, where about eight dancers at any session bring Rodin's work to life. The former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet described her course, Dance and the Visual Arts: A New Public Dialogue, this way: "We're inviting Rodin to be our teacher. What can we learn?"

A few sessions later, the Stanford dance lecturer is finding the answer: "From Rodin we've learned a great deal about gravity, and the relationship with gravity. The fact that the body is part of nature. A lot of gestures and what we now call dance – all his references – come from nature, whether it's spinning or leaping or releasing onto the floor.

L.A. Cicero Three people with sketch pads sitting on the floor

Visitors to the gallery sketch the dancers in class.

"He says it himself: 'The teacher of the artist is nature.' The best thing an artist can do is go into the world with eyes open and learn from nature."

Cantor's curator for education, Patience Young, also has had something of an education: "I came in with the expectation that the dance people had been influenced by Rodin – but the dancers said, 'No, it's the other way around.'" Clearly, the influence between Rodin and the world of dance goes both ways.

Alonzo King, choreographer and artistic director of LINES Contemporary Ballet, in his first visit to Stanford has joined Maffre and her students for the series of open rehearsals. The dancers will also learn passages from King's Without Wax (1990), a choreography inspired by Rodin's lost-wax casting technique.

"He's a dance artist, so he has a creative mind of his own," said Maffre. "He finds his own way to direct the students."

"To be a great dancer, you have to develop technique and artistry at once," said Maffre, who trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School. Too often, the emphasis is on technique. This class gives students a chance "to develop themselves as artists, thinking creatively," said the French dancer.

Future classes are offered from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursdays, Nov. 10 and Dec. 1, in the auditorium of the Cantor Arts Center.

Cantor provides the drawing paper and pencils. Maffre says about half the dozen-or-so visitors at any moment take advantage of the opportunity to sketch as they observe – and occasionally, she asks them to share their observations with the class, so the students can learn from them.

Maffre said that so far "the response has been very positive" from everyone.

Young agrees: "The comments we're getting are that people are thrilled with the opportunity to watch a class in action."

The sessions will culminate in a final showcase performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, in Roble Gym.

Rodin would be pleased. "The illusion of life is obtained through good modeling and movement," he wrote. "These two qualities are like the breath and blood of all beautiful artwork."

Admission is free to all events.

Muriel Maffre, Dance:

Patience Young, Cantor Arts Center: (650) 725-6788,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,