SOPHILINE Cheam Shapiro sat poised by the stage’s edge, pre-empting the moves of her 15 dancers. Her eagle eye missed no error – picking up on a classical Khmer dance hand gesture not curled back enough or a limb not quite twisted in the correct position – imperfections invisible to the audience but obvious to the celebrated choreographer and director of dance troupe Khmer Arts.
The morning’s performance was a scene from the ensemble’s new production A Bend in the River, soon to be performed in Season of Cambodia, the two-month-long New York festival of Cambodian art and music. The dance formed part of an elaborate blessing ritual last Thursday at Shapiro’s grand, Angkorian-inspired Takmao theatre. Built in 1999 by Shapiro’s uncle, National Living Treasure Chheng Phon, one of the few actors to survive the Khmer Rouge and a former minister of culture, the ethereal space was the ideal choice for the four-hour ceremony, its vast auditorium awash with incense and brought alive with chants, dances and animist offerings. It was also one of the last chances Shapiro’s troupe, along with other SOC performers, Amrita contemporary dancers and an array of musicians and puppeteers, had to rehearse in front of an audience before the US recitals.
The dance slice of the festival, which includes performers from Khmer Arts, Amrita and Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi’s Royal Ballet – performing the sublime Legend of Apsara Mera – heralds the first time in 20 years that classical Cambodian dance will be performed in the US, and Shapiro says she is excited about the prospect of showcasing her contemporary interpretation of the form.
In staging the work, Shapiro has collaborated with a number of local artists and instrumentalists. Celebrated sculptor Sopheap Pich created a huge rattan and bamboo crocodile that writhes and snakes about with the dancers on stage, while up-and-coming costume designer San Vannary designed silk sampots and beaded bodices for the all-female cast. A team from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) printmaking studio created the set.
A Bend in the River, conceived about two years ago, is loosely based around a folktale Shapiro had read decades ago that lingered in her mind: a young woman, drifting downstream to get married, encounters a crocodile that kills her and her family. Before she is eaten, the protagonist vows to be reborn as a bigger crocodile; the piece evokes themes of vengeance, passion and fate.
Shapiro, who was a member of the first graduating RUFA dance class to form after the Khmer Rouge almost wiped out the tradition, was herself part of the original troupe of classical dancers who toured the US for the first time after the genocide. The 1990 tour was marred by politically charged protests and anti-communist death threats, but the ballet dancers were also revered and showered in gifts by the Cambodian diaspora community. It was also when she accepted her husband, John Shapiro’s, marriage proposal.
“I think this piece continues a general trajectory of Sophiline’s work, which is moving away from the standard conventions of classical dance and toward more invention. These dances remain classical at their core, but Sophiline is employing increasing amounts of freedom and playfulness,” John, also Khmer Arts’ executive director, says.
Both emphasise the importance of the outside world recognising Cambodia’s contemporary context.
“Most Americans, if they know anything about Cambodia, know The Killing Fields and Angkor Wat. That’s a fairly shallow understanding of a culture that counts its history in thousands of years,” John says.
“Such as gender issues, social and moral issues . . . these are things I discuss through dance. I am honoured to be born as a Cambodian woman, from an ancient culture . . . I am honoured to be protected by that, but I also feel it can imprison women as well, this society,” Shapiro adds.
She says although the government and institutions such as the Royal Ballet had become a lot less rigid in what they defined as classical dance, she still felt limited by a “complete lack of government support” for contemporary or non-traditional dance.
“For the contemporary dance world . . . and the arts sector in general, the government doesn’t have its mind wrapped around what this sector is supposed to be, so it’s up to people like us, like Phare [Ponleu Selpak] to do it. I think some of the most compelling challenges are in the areas of improving education, fostering creativity and developing infrastructures. If it’s not traditional, then [the Ministry of Culture] have no particular interest. That’s not healthy, that they’re not engaged with a very important emerging field.
“Performance has long been important in Cambodia . . . In the 1980s, it served an important role in bringing a sense of healing and transcendence. Why is it important today? I guess if you asked 10 dancers, you might get 10 different answers. But I hope none of those answers would be the same as the ones you’d hear in 1200 or 1965 or 1981. Artists of every era must respond to their contemporary environment,” John says.
Toronto-based, Jamaican-born choreographer Peter Chin, who has worked with RUFA researching Cambodian dance and textiles and Fred Frumberg, founder of Phnom Penh’s Amrita Performing Arts, agrees.
“Let’s put it this way – it’s heartbreaking . . . it’s obvious there is no support. Not only is there no support, but there have been actions that are directly harmful to [contemporary dance’s] growth: the new RUFA was built so far away [close to the airport], it flooded every year, there was a lot of absenteeism because teachers and students couldn’t get out there, couldn’t afforded petrol. [Also] tearing down Bassac Theatre,” Chin opines.
The chorographer returned countless times to Cambodia since his first visit in 2003, guiding Amrita dancers in workshops and projects across Asia, Europe, Canada and Jamaica.
“The first piece I worked on with the [Amrita] dancers, it asked me to dig really deep. I had to enter a certain amount of remembered pain and trauma and try to sublimate that into art that was forward-looking but [also] acknowledge this phenomenon that is the arts in Cambodia, and what it holds. To me a lot of that is invisible. We don’t see it but it is around.”
Chin choreographed six male and female dancers for Olden New Golden Blue, originally performed by the group two years ago in Toronto, “tweaked and remounted” for New York. It will join Amrita performance Khmeropédies III: Source/Primate by Khmer/French choreographer Emmanuèle Phuon and My Mother and I, created and performed by Cambodian choreographer Chey Chankethya, who also dances in Chin’s piece.
“In just the last two weeks, it is almost a different piece, their dancing capacity is so much better, interpretively and technically, they’re really pushing the conversation, about what it means to be a young Cambodian dancer, further.”
Employing interpretive dance moves of twists and liquid limbs, spoken dialogue, Sinn Sisamouth tunes and a track by B-boy Peanut, and elements of Lakhaon Kaol (Cambodian masked dance), the piece explores the issues of the younger generation – nostalgia, spirituality, materialism, sexism.
“So now this new generation are not only recipients of something passed down, but creating something new within a classical idiom that they have created,” he says.
“Contemporary dance gives you a mindset, training, creative license. Not long ago, they would really have to have confrontations with their teachers who thought they were shirking the devotion to the revival of the classical form . . . but that’s changing slowly . . . I would even dare to say that contemporary dancing is even improving their classical dancing as well,” Chin says.
He believes contemporary dance is perhaps more accessible than contemporary painting or sculpture to younger Cambodians due to their exposure to social media and pop culture – YouTube clips and television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance?
“They dig it . . . it’s become an entrée for younger Cambodian folks to elevate dance, even dance coming from a very traditional background, that is cool, hip . . . so the unusual features of contemporary dance, aren’t so strange for them.”
At a rehearsal on Monday in a circus tent in Tonle Bassac, the air is thick and oppressive. Beads of sweat drip from Chankethya’s brow as she stands at the front of the group, arms outstretched, face full of feeling.
“I feel confused about why I choose to create one way and then in the next moment, choose something completely different, but I feel that somehow I am still moving forward,” she cries in Khmer, and leaps behind the other dancers.
The 28-year-old UCLA master’s student entered training at RUFA in classical dance at the age of five and has returned to Phnom Penh to rehearse for Olden New Golden Blue, and counts Shapiro and Chim as idols.
“Switching to contemporary dance really opened me up as a dancer, the body and the mind . . . I don’t mean dancing classical form is closed but you have to respect certain rules. The dancing I do now comes out of my own inspirations.”
“My pieces are now inspired by the environment in Cambodia now, honouring the past and moving forward to the future. As an unmarried young woman, gender issues are important to me. I was lucky, raised in an open family, they never pressured to get married, to have kids. I mean I still have so much to do, so much I want to achieve I have more responsibility in a way. I have an obligation to give back to the women who weren’t so lucky. Because the majority of women are faced with domestic violence, sexual harassment, massive double standards on what men can do, how young men treat women and expect them to behave,” she says
“These are messages I hope international, and Cambodian audiences see. Right now, regardless to the past. We are looking forward. We have this past, that we have a lot more than wars and sadness. We have rich culture, tradition; we have everything that the world needs to learn”.
ALL PHOTOS BY Alexander Crook AND Scott Howes