At the Khmer Arts Theatre in Kandal province, there is a lull in proceedings. “My energy level has gone down,” Sophiline Shapiro announces apologetically. Rehearsals stop, Sophiline sits down and four dancers leap into a new formation: providing an eight-handed massage to their choreographer.
In less than the time it takes to boil a kettle, coffee and rice porridge appear, and 15 minutes later, Sophiline is back on form, correcting and cajoling her elegant dancers as they glide across the sweltering outdoor rehearsal space.
That Sophiline succumbs to the occasional moment of exhaustion is unsurprising. Only two months after successfully staging The Lives of Giants at the Chaktomuk Theatre, she is deep into rehearsals for another, even more ambitious show.
Pamina Devi, which the Sophiline Arts Ensemble will perform at the Department of Performing arts from May 21 to 24, is a 90-minute reimagining of Mozart’s 1791 opera The Magic Flute. The piece was first commissioned by theatre director Peter Sellars for a 2006 festival performance in Venice and has toured in the US. However, it has only been performed once in Cambodia in the nine years since.
Relaxing on the set’s raised platform after rehearsals, Sophiline explains that at first she didn’t know what to make of the opera’s themes of European enlightenment and Freemasonry. “I didn’t find much that connected to me as a Cambodian woman,” she recalls. “So I studied the storyline, and the thing I could find in there was Pamina.”
In Mozart’s telling, Pamina is a secondary character – a virtuous princess who has been stolen away from her mother, the queen of the night, by the high priest Sarastro. In Pamina Devi, she is recast as the heroic protagonist.
As in the original libretto, the Queen of the Night and Sarastro represent enlightenment values and magical superstition respectively, but Sophiline has refashioned their struggle as a family drama: a divorced couple fighting for their daughter’s loyalty.
The climax comes when Pamina’s mother glides across the stage and delivers her daughter a dagger with which to kill her father. Pamina has two choices: to refuse the dagger, or to take it and kill her father. In fact, she does neither.
“She takes the weapon, but she does not use it,” says Sophiline. She explains that this “third way” has a deep personal significance: “I suffered during the Khmer Rouge, but I accept that it happened and the effect it had on Cambodia. I don’t want to erase it from my history, I want to keep hold of the memory as a reminder not the let this happen again.”
When Pamina Devi toured in the US, the Washington Post’s dance critic labelled it “spectacular but languorous,” and complained that it was “difficult to chart the plot through the dancing alone”.
Sophiline remembers the review well, but is unbothered by the suggestion that the story, which is told through lyrics sung in Khmer, might be inaccessible. She has even opted to remove the English translation that appeared on a screen above the stage during the overseas tour. “It was distracting from the dance with its blinking lights,” she says.
Sophiline puts the reviewer’s criticisms down to a lack of familiarity. “Someone who is seeing Cambodian dance for the first time, they get lost in the beauty and the movement – the way the dancers hyperextend their fingers and arch their backs – so they lose track of the story,” she says.
She also suggests a certain degree of double standards amongst those who accuse the work of being impenetrable. “I felt the same way when I first listened to Western symphony music: I didn’t know the difference between Mozart, Bach and Beethoven,” she recalls. “But the more you listen, you see that there’s a specific style to each composer, and you can identify the period.”
Throughout Pamina Devi, Sophiline delights in subtle subversions of the classical repertoire. When Pamina chastises her father for thinking he can ignore her opinion because she is a woman, the dancer places her hand in the well-recognised “flower” formation, but jabs between the fingers with her other hand to indicate that small thorns are lurking underneath the rose.
The set is also a departure from traditional presentations. Whereas previous stagings have made reference to temple architecture and shadow puppetry, this week’s performance features a set made up solely of triangular metal grids.
The choreographer explains that she has only recently had the confidence to see that “traditional costumes and presentation” are not necessary as markers of authenticity. As she speaks, she gets up and darts about the stage, rearranging the triangles and rifling through the piles of brightly coloured organza she uses to make lightweight, more modern, costumes for the dancers.
The only time that Sophiline looks stuck for words is when asked what aspect of her production she leaves up to others. “I can’t actually play the music myself,” she says after a pause, but adds that that she is still responsible for directing the musicians, arranging the music, and training up her cousin from a Sinn Sisamouth-loving karaoke singer to professional lead vocalist.
At the end of the list, she pauses again, and corrects herself. “Actually, there isn’t really anything I don’t do.”
Pamina Devi is at the Department of Performing Arts, Streets 384 and 173 behind Sparks microbrewery, May 21-23 at 7pm and May 24 at 4pm. Tickets cost $3-$15.