NO playwright has traversed more borders or proved so exhaustively adaptable as Shakespeare,
but the Bard may be looking down with more than quizzical amusement at Cambodia's
premiere of Othello, which takes place at Phnom Penh's University of Fine Arts this
April 1 & 2, under the Khmer title, Samritechhak. In this unorthodox production,
the Moorish protagonist is a female dancer playing a half-man, half-giant; Desdemona
is a sinuously graceful princess; and Iago a monkey.
A radical revision that goes too far? Hardly. This is - quite simply - Khmer classical
ballet. But, if the mis-en-scène might prove a tad too abstract for the capital's
foreign community, Cambodians should have no problem identifying the traditional
archetypes, the sinuous gestures and the intricate hand and foot movements that are
so integral to the style. As for the plot, one doesn't have to delve very far into
Khmer mythology to unearth star-struck lovers torn apart by scheming courtiers.
It was this realization that prompted 35-year-old dancer and choreographer Sophiline
Cheam Shapiro to create this uniquely Khmer interpretation. What struck her most
were the parallel fates of Desdemona and of Sita, the heroine of the Reamker, the
popular Khmer version of the Ramayana epic. "Both are victims of men's foolishness,
and the most pathetic of human foibles - jealousy," explains Shapiro. "Both
maintain their dignity to the end and never lose the sense of compassion towards
their tormentors; but they prefer to die rather than have their integrity questioned
by the men they love."
This production is the culmination of experience in the cultures of both East and
West. Shapiro took up dancing, aged 14, at Phnom Penh's School of Fine Arts under
her teacher Soth Sam On, and soon emerged as one the most promising dancers of the
post-Pol Pot generation. She might have remained in Cambodia and taken up the mantle
of a long teaching tradition, had she not met and married John, her American writer
husband, in 1991.
That year Shapiro moved to California where she set up her own company, Dance Celeste,
going on to teach Khmer classical dance at UCLA in 1998. She is also an active member
of the 50,000-strong Cambodian community in Long Beach.
The Othello obsession began in 1995, when Shaprio was studying English literature
at Santa Monica College. With a grant of $30,000 from the Irvine Foundation, she
was able to translate the entire play into Khmer, as well as root out traditional
songs never before used in classical ballet, re-writing the lyrics to suit the new
narrative. The decision to première the work in Cambodia had a lot to do with
the availablity of experienced dancers, but also a strong desire "to give something
back to the country which taught me my skills." A private viewing was given
last June at the Vipassanna Centre in Takhmau, built by her uncle and former culture
minister Cheng Phon.
A bridge between East and West? Cambodians attending the show will find a well-known
dance idiom telling an unfamiliar story, Westerners an unfamiliar style telling a
familiar story. However, rather than transplant the play to a new milieu in some
banal sop to modernism, Shapiro has conscientiously retained the courtly setting
of most traditional Khmer ballets, as well as their language and syntax.
At the same time she is adding a powerful new work to a devastated repertory: 90%
of the country's classical dancers perished under Pol Pot, and a large number of
dance pieces went with them to the grave. Restoring what was left has been a lengthy
and painstaking process of piecing together gestures passed down by example and by
word of mouth, and lodged only in fragile memories. A number of Cambodia's elder
dance masters have made invaluable contributions, attending all the rehearsals as
advisors, giving comments and criticism, and ensuring the integrity of the moves.
Following Khmer custom, the bulk of the narrative and dialogue is given to an offstage
chorus of singers, accompanied by a Pinpeat ensemble, the traditional Khmer orchestra
of gongs, drums, ooe, xylophone and strings. To convey the complexity of the story,
Shapiro was then able to draw on the rich vocabulary of literally hundreds of gestures
and their symbolism. Only occasionally did she take liberties, such as the depiction
of the sea voyage from Venice to Cyprus. Instead of the short steps usually used
to illustrate a boat journey in Khmer classical dance, she has substituted more exaggerated
movements suggesting the motion of waves.
As in the original, "action" features strongly. Iago vents his anger with
his employer by destroying the bridal bed chamber, and he dispatches his wife with
similar force. But for the final denouement, Shapiro decided the violence was inappropriate
for the Khmer context. Othello doesn't murder Desdemona. He casts a simple, albeit
choreographically complex, spell on her, and having done so turns the black magic
on himself. Explains Shapiro: "A man who has seen so much suffering, beauty,
and success could never die at his own hands, at least not in the Khmer tradition."
Custom also dicates that to die on stage is a bad omen In an epilogue, Desdemona
stands motionless, her eyes fixed on eternity, but not on Othello who gazes up at
her in a moving plea for punishment. Here Shapiro says she wants to convey a deliberately
political message to the Khmer people at this time of possible retribution through
a Khmer Rouge trial. "In the end Othello takes responsibility for his own actions
and asks for judgement," says Shapiro. "Even if the Khmer Rouge never accepted
their guilt, the Khmer people must try to find the strength to move on."
Shapiro has high hopes for the production. She would like it to tour, and eventually
find its way onto video. She also wants an opportunity to explain something of the
background to the project through a question-and-answer sessions. It's all part of
a long-standing desire to enrich Khmer traditions through education. "Young
dancers certainly have the technique, but to make great dancers they need to understand
a lot more of the history and knowledge that lie behind Khmer classical ballet."
Robert Turnbull is a free-lance jounalist who covers the international arts scene.
He has been based in Phnom Penh the past two years.