Under the ornate, fan-shaped roof of the Chaktomuk Theatre, a battle of the elements is raging as dancers from the Sophiline Arts Ensemble rehearse for the opening night of its new show.
The jealous giant Ream Eyso chases Moni Mekahala, guardian of the seas, through the skies. He flings his axe towards his rival, but it hits the clouds instead and a resounding boom echoes. In response, Moni Mekahala throws a precious jewel into the air, creating a glare that blinds the giant. Through this celestial duel, thunder and lightning are born.
The tale, performed from tonight until Sunday under the title Thunder and Lightning, will be familiar to many Cambodians as a centuries-old prayer for agricultural fertility.
Its traditionalism may come as a surprise to those familiar with the work of its choreographer: Sophiline Shapiro, a driving force in the modernisation of Cambodian dance whose 2013 show A Bend in the River toured internationally and featured a set design by abstract sculptor Sopheap Pich.
But she says that this canonical performance has an equally important impetus: the need to document a dance preserved only in the memories of a handful of teachers, and on a badly worn video cassette that Shapiro was handed in 1996.
When the choreographer and her husband, John Shapiro, founded the Sophiline Arts Ensemble in 2007, remastering this particular dance was an early priority: “I started to train my dancers straight away,” she says, “The tape was in such a bad condition it was important to learn it quickly.”
With the help of some of the original dancers, Shapiro pieced together the two-hour production and hastily filmed a new master copy.
Before this evening’s performance, Shapiro will take to the stage to introduce the piece. Although she expects audiences to be familiar with the general outline of the story, she wants to explain its subtler themes: the need to balance opposing forces; our daily inner struggle to have good win out over evil; the majesty of a powerful woman.
“In Cambodian mythology a lot of women play pretty princesses,” she says, “but Moni Mekahala is a leader. Although she carries the most powerful jewel she doesn’t use it to intimidate, she uses it to protect the world.”
She hopes that she will be looking out at a sold-out auditorium, but it’s hard to know for sure. Because, as John Shapiro explains, the real innovation of this piece isn’t the show itself, it’s the production model behind it.
Rather than performing as they used to, as part of a festival or for free in their small Takhmao Theatre in Kandal province, the company is pushing forward with a new model of selling tickets. “With the exception of pop music and tourist shows there is no history of ticketed shows in Cambodia,” he says. “Going back to Ankorian times [public dance] has been achieved through patronage.”
John admits that the ingrained expectation of getting something for nothing in Cambodia makes the project a risky experiment, as does the absence of any infrastructure for online ticketing, but the signs are positive.
In June the company’s inaugural run of paid-for performances sold out completely, with a waiting list for the last night.
Provided that the new model proves durable, the Shapiros plan to ease back on international touring and devote their energies to putting on three seasons of dance per year at the Chaktomuk.
The aim, Shapiro says, is to be “the local equivalent of the New York City Ballet”, although he hopes that Cambodian spectators will prove different in one important respect. “In lots of countries half your audiences are nodding off because they’re so old. You can’t survive with an audience that’s geriatric.”
Tickets for this show start at $3 for students. “It’s like going to Brown and getting a cappuccino and a muffin,” says Shapiro.