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Dancers rehearse for Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s "A Bend in the River", which premiered at the Chaktomuk Theatre on Friday
Dancers rehearse for Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s A Bend in the River, which premiered at the Chaktomuk Theatre on Friday Charlotte Pert

River of haunting memories

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was 12 years old when she witnessed the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. On the long road home from the labour camp, the group she was with encountered communist cadres and attacked them with machetes. They were angry over all they had suffered during the past four years.

“I didn’t see it because I was afraid. But I was asking myself whether I should [look]. This was a way I could seek my revenge,” said Shapiro, 47, whose father and two brothers were among the regime’s two million casualties.

More than three decades later, revenge propels the narrative of her latest choreographed work, A Bend in the River, which opened on Friday at the Chaktomuk Theatre this weekend by her dance company Sophiline Arts Ensemble.

A Bend in the River tells the story of a young girl, Kaley, who, after her family is eaten by a crocodile, transforms into a crocodile herself to avenge her loved ones. But once she becomes the animal, she finds revenge to be no simple task.

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Speaking at her theatre in Takhmao, Shapiro said that the dance, which is based on a Khmer children’s book, Kra Peau Kaley, stirred up old emotions within her.

“When I read this story, I felt, ‘this is me, as that crocodile’… That stayed in my head for a long time, and I was looking for a moment to develop it,” she said.

The dancer and choreographer first stumbled upon Kra Peau Kaley at a Phnom Penh market and kept it for years, but it was misplaced when she moved to the US with her husband John in 1991.

When she returned in 2006 to establish the Cambodian arm of what used to be Khmer Arts Ensemble, she searched the city’s historical archives for the book, without success.

She and John wrote the dance-drama from the parts of the story she could remember.

In 2012, she approached the composer Him Sophy, who was also a young boy in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and the artists Sopheap Pich and Kong Vollak about collaborating, and they agreed.

This weekend’s performance is the Cambodian premiere, but A Bend in the River was previously performed in the US in April last year.

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Fifteen dancers tell the story through movement, using rattan structures made by sculptor Pich Sopheap to signify the crocodile. Sopheap originally made one crocodile, but Shapiro suggested splitting it into pieces and asking the dancers to carry one each. “I thought that if we moved the dancers, each with a piece of rattan crocodile, then the crocodile would move in such a way that it became one,” she said.

The river is central to the set, with Kong Vollak creating two frames made from small circular transparent tubes that hang from ceiling to floor and reflect the light to create a shimmering, water-like effect. Vollak, 30, picked the plastic material to make a comment on the effects of waste on the river’s environment. “I also went to sit by the river, and saw the direction in which water went: a lot of it swirling around,” he said. “That’s why I decided on the shape of the tubes.”

Live music by Him Sophy and narration will accompany the dance, which will be subtitled in English. The dancers will wear costumes by designer San Vannary.

With a central theme that explores complicated emotions following the Khmer Rouge era, it is by a strange chance that Sophiline’s production should be staged at the Chaktomuk Theatre. In 1979, this was the venue for a “show trial” of regime leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Seary. “It’s a fitting coincidence that this is the same place where the trial organised by the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was, and that we will perform here,” Shapiro said.

A Bend in the River will be performed at the Chaktomuk Theatre at 7pm on Saturday, June 14 and 4pm on Sunday, June 15. Tickets are $10, $5 and $2.50 for students with valid ID and are available from Java Cafe, Amrita Performing Arts, Platinum Cineplex and Lotus Silk.

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