“Love is [mine and John’s] foundation. We invest in each other. I would do anything to keep us going”: Khmer dance power-couple Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and husband John, on the stage of the Khmer Arts Theatre, which they founded. Photograph: Mai Vireak/7Days
Internationally acclaimed classical dancer and choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has felt passionate about Cambodian arts - dancing and singing - for as long as she can remember. As a young girl, she watched her brother and father perish under the Khmer Rouge, but survived the brutal regime, joining one of the first art collectives after the dictatorship fell, and was one of the first to enrol in classical dance at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) when it reopened in 1981 (the same year her uncle, National Living Treasure Chheng Phon, a famous performer in the 1960s and 70s, became Minister for Culture).
In 1990 she met John Shapiro, a then 28-year-old Hollywood production manager visiting his sister who was a dance ethnographer undertaking doctoral research at RUFA, for two weeks in Phnom Penh. Both say it was love at first sight, and soon after Sophiline and other RUFA dancers toured the United States. In 1991, they married: the first US and Cambodian citizens to be married since before the Khmer Rouge. The ceremony was held in the Takmao orchid gardens which now surround their Khmer Arts Theatre, where 16 dancers and eight musicians perform classical and original pieces and train for international tours.
The husband-and-wife team also have a dance studio in Long Beach, California, where there are three teachers training Khmer-Americans in dance. Now raising their 11-year-old twins in Cambodia and seen by many as a power-couple of Khmer dance, both are fervent advocates of both traditional Cambodian art and the country’s contemporary scene. Claire Knox heard their story.
John Shapiro, 50
“In 1990 Cambodia had no systematic relationship with the Western world, it was desperately poor, there was a curfew and you could still hear bomb shells going off. When I first arrived at my sister’s apartment, Sophiline rode past on her bike. I have no idea why, but I remember turning to my sister and saying “Gee, she’s cute, too bad I can’t marry her,” and my sister saying, “Yeah you’re right.”
I was 28, marriage was not on my mind at all then, so it was a strange thing for me to say! Sophiline took me to the Royal Palace, it was the first time it was just the two of us. I asked if she wanted to get a drink and she freaked out- it was politically dangerous at that point for Cambodians to be alone with foreigners, the government was very paranoid at that time and thought you were a spy. I became a groupie when the RUFA dancers toured America in September, less than a month after I returned to LA. It was a very politically charged tour.
The Cambodian-Americans, who were rabidly anti-communist, thought these dancers were representatives of the communist government - half were showering them in gifts and thrilled to see them yet the other half were troublemakers.
There were death threats; the head of the company had bullets left on his pillow and when they were performing in New York, someone slipped a note under the doorway saying if these dancers perform tonight they would be shot. Sophiline was on that list. At a restaurant one night, someone threw a brick through the window. Someone was held at knifepoint.
Through all of this I was flirting the whole time. In Long Beach, where the biggest Khmer expat community is, they performed in a 3500 seat theatre and there was a line around the corner to get in, people were spilling out. They were rock stars.
Then, artists started to defect along the way, to run away. It was crazy. When I had to leave the New York performance to go back to LA, we acknowledged in the hotel lobby we probably wouldn’t see each other again and we both started crying. When I got home I decided I had to do something… I called Sophiline - she had never used a phone before - and told her if she wanted to stay I would help her.
She said it wasn’t a very interesting offer! So I said “Oh geez, will you marry me?” So we traveled back to Cambodia, to ask her mother, and we married here, where our studio now is.
The Khmer Rouge were just over the river and you could hear them firing off guns. She was just the most beautiful dancer. One of the things I found shocking about Sophiline was how sincere she was about art, she really believed in what she was doing.
When we moved back to California in August of 1991 she started teaching dance in southern California, so I started applying for grants, and eventually Khmer Arts was born.
I never imagined myself doing this but it is much more rewarding than Hollywood, which has a lot of romantic myths about it but is not what you imagine. Sophiline does her own thing creatively.
Her uncle was one of the chief architects of the revival of the arts. Immediately after the [Khmer Rouge] regime fell, he was in Kampong Thom province and went to National Road 6, waiting for artists to pass, and he would flag them down to start an artist’s colony, which my wife was part of. In 1980, he conducted the survey to see which artists survived - that’s how they figured out 90 per cent of the artists perished - mainly based on memory.
Then he became the minister. So Sophiline is both an insider and outsider - [the government] have known her for 30 years but there is a suspicion because she does her own thing. She doesn’t ask for their permission, she doesn’t ask for anything from them - she just does.”
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, 45
“I was eight in 1975 when we all left Phnom Penh, my home, marching over the Monivong Bridge to Kandal province. My dad had worked for the government and we’d always been comfortable - we had a TV, refrigerator, a two story house, motorbikes and a car.
My uncles were all artists. In the camps we were hungry, eventually starving. I actually missed music so much, and became hooked on the KR songs. They had catchy melodies and lyrics, for a child. I had cholera, an infected foot, and was so skinny.
Death was pervasive. People were called away. My brother became ill and died, as did my father. Around 5am one morning, he called my mum, he said he was cold and hungry, she went to the yard to dig out potatoes, she started to cook, by the time it was ready, he had died - he died hungry. After the Khmer Rouge fell, we ended up in Battambang - my brother in law was teaching dance there.
My uncle [Chheng Phon] was in Kampong Thom, and came to pick us up and we moved there. And we started an arts collective, and then moved to Phnom Penh to study at RUFA after it re-opened. Dancing - what an outlet! I loved it, but I didn’t think I wanted it as my profession - I thought I’d be poor and artists are not respected in Cambodian society.
Eventually my uncle persuaded me. I have memories of him being the key person to bring all artists together at the National Theatre and figuring out where to start with arts after 1979. When I met John for the first time, I said I was riding my bicycle to my teacher’s home at the White Building, but in fact I had seen his photo and thought he was handsome, so I decided to detour past his sister’s house, and he was outside.
Over the next few weeks I was a great tour guide for him but I didn’t want people to think I was going out with a foreigner, for fear of a bad reputation - people think dancers are not good women. To go on tour that first time in America was a great opportunity but I was frightened, we were aware of the death lists.
They told us we didn’t have to perform but we got together and said if we die we may as well die doing something we love, so we went ahead. I was very affected by one of my best friends’ death in 1999 [the actress and dancer, Piseth Pilika, trained and taught with Sophiline at RUFA. She was shot by an unknown gunman in 1999 at Orussey Market and died a week later - the case was never solved].
She was very famous and loved - 10,000 people came to her funeral. I had a dream about her in 2002 and created a dance piece inspired by her. When I went back to the US I had mixed emotions, I felt guilty. I felt that I was happy to go to be with John and go to school and all the rest, but I thought my uncle and teachers at RUFA had invested in me, to teach Cambodian dance, to keep the tradition alive and I was leaving. When I was ready to teach, I left them.
I felt good coming back in 2005, but nervous. These days, there is perhaps too much of a disconnect between locals and foreigners. Sometimes there are relationships - but most of the time they live separately and aren’t paying enough attention. Love is [mine and John’s] foundation.
We invest in each other. I would do anything to keep us going. All I brought with me [to the US] was a small suitcase and a dollar. I depended on this guy. I felt that he saw something in me. I feel proud that we’re carrying on my uncle’s work together.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at firstname.lastname@example.org
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