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Choreographer puts an ancient epic to trial by fire

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Two dancers from Khmer Arts perform ‘Stained’ at their theatre in Takmao. The piece was adapted from the Ramayana. Photograph: Lim Sochanlina/Phnom Penh Post

Under the shade of a tamarind tree in the quiet outskirts of Takmao, six liquid-limbed classical Khmer dancers glide across a stage.

The hum of monks chanting in a pagoda nearby is stifled by a cacophony of drums, gong chimes and xylophones.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, one of the country’s most celebrated classical dancers, and choreographer and director of dance organisation Khmer Arts, keeps watch over the performers.

A week before their first Cambodian performance in four months, Khmer Arts group is holding a rehearsal. An ensemble of six dancers, along with their eight-piece traditional band, will perform tomorrow “Stained”, Shapiro’s interpretation of Sita’s trial by fire in the Ramayana.

The stylised, fluid movements the dancers make are often symbolic of natural objects like flowers and fruit.

The story and thematic concerns of the play, however, are less graceful – the performance addresses rape and violence in Cambodia and around the globe.

In the ancient Sanskrit legend, after being kidnapped and held hostage by the demon Krong Reap, the queen is rescued and the demon is killed by her husband, the King Preah Ream. Queen Sita is then forced to walk over fire to prove her “purity”. Only when she gives birth to twins the King recognises as his own does he accept her back.

“‘Stained’ is really about one of the biggest social issues plaguing Cambodia – and the world really – rape. Especially after what happened in India... and in Cambodia it is pervasive. Look at the recent cases in the news – in Battambang, for example. [It’s also about] the complexities of gender issues and how men and women communicate with each other,” Shapiro says.

Shapiro is passionate about exploring contemporary  themes and movements while preserving a traditional art form and ancient way of storytelling.

She subtly inverts classical movements, such as turning a kbach (the curved hand gesture typical of classical Khmer dance) back to front, and has created her own contemporary version of the plot.

The subverted plot is reflective of pressing issues in Cambodia today, Shapiro says.

“That’s what choreography is about, isn’t it? Reflecting current events and philosophies of the creator. I feel we really need more of this in Cambodia.”

In Shapiro’s version, Preah Ream’s suspicion is still heightened when Sita returns to him, “highlighting that suspicion can tear a relationship apart.”

When Preah Ream finds out she was raped by Krong Reap and rejects her, she retorts in Khmer, “I see you’ve been stained too... you don’t deserve me”, and bids him farewell. Preah Ream then reconsiders and apologises to the queen.

“It’s about the double standards women face. That male sense of ownership over a woman. She turns it on him, stands up for herself, which is completely different to the original,” Shapiro says.

Two other versions of the same tale by acclaimed Thai and Indonesian choreographers Pichet Klunchen and Eko Supriyanto will be performed alongside “Stained”. The group will also perform their pieces in Bangkok and Jakarta, collectively titled “Fire!Fire!Fire!”

Tomorrow’s performance will take place in the grounds of the troupe’s Bayon temple theatre in Takmao.

Although ancient looking, the dramatic Angkorian structure – a vast practice studio backing onto a stage and concrete building with carved stone faces – was built in 1999 by Shapiro’s uncle, National Living Treasure Chheng Phon, a former actor who survived the Khmer Rouge and a former minister of culture.

The stone faces are illuminated during performances, Shapiro’s husband and Khmer Arts co-director, John, says, creating an ethereal backdrop.

“There’s a family of beautiful white owls that live in the crown of the centre stone face... Occasionally they will come flying in or out during a show, which I’m told is bad luck in Cambodia, but I think it’s magnificent.”

“Fire!Fire!Fire!” is free and starts at 7pm at the Khmer Arts Theatre in Takmao on Street 115.

A round-trip bus service has been arranged for 10,000 riel, departing adjacent to the Russian Embassy at 6pm.

The following day, Supriyanto and Klunchen will conduct a free studio workshop at the theatre at 1pm with lunch provided.

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at claire.knox@phnompenhpost.com 

Follow Claire Knox on twitter at: @claireknox18

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