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Hanky-panky with Ramayana? No, Shakespeare's Othello

Hanky-panky with Ramayana? No, Shakespeare's Othello


The offending handkerchief changes hands yet again

IT MAY seem an unlikely setting, but within the walls of the School of Fine Arts

North Campus, a small revolution is taking place.

Students and teachers of classical Cambodian dance are dressed in dramatic jeweled

costumes, struggling to balance elegantly in the heat as they twist and turn to Khmer

music and song, in an effort to portray - not the Ramayana, not the Apsara dance

- but William Shakespeare's Othello.

It may not be immediately obvious to onlookers, but all the characters are here -

Iago the scheming troublemaker, Desdemona the wronged wife, and Othello the tragic


The brains behind this unique and ambitious project is Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, a

Cambodian-American dancer, choreographer and ethnologist.

"I see myself as a kind of cultural broker," she explains, "I am trying

to connect Cambodian and Western culture through dance."

Sophiline first read Othello in 1995, when she was a student in California.

"I fell in love with Othello right away," she smiles. "The tragedy

really appealed to me, and the characters of Iago, Desdemona, and Othello attracted

me so much."

"But most important was the portrayal of women - woman as a victim of man's

foolishness. This theme exists in many Cambodian mythologies, so I thought it would

translate well."

Sophiline admits that she was nervous when she first began the project - especially

after she mentioned the idea to her uncle, long-standing culture vulture and Chairman

of the National Election Committee, Chheng Phon.

"He was horrified," she laughs. "He asked me how I dared to do such

a thing with the great Shakespeare and the great Cambodian classical dance."

Chheng Phon smiles when he is asked about the production.

"Othello comes from a realistic tradition of theatre, whereas classical Cambodian

dance is a symbolic tradition," he says. "It is a very difficult task to

combine the two in one production."

"It was a good try, an experience to see the two combined."

To begin the massive task of representing the complex passions of the play in Cambodian

imagery, Sophiline first narrated the story of Othello to her students, and explained

some of the political and historical themes in the play. Then, taking traditional

songs, she rewrote the lyrics to tell the story. Intricate hand and foot movements,

so integral to classical dance in Cambodia, were a more complex task - some were

already known to the students, some were newly created by Sophiline.

"I wanted to adapt western ideas and put them into a Cambodian aesthetic,"

she says. "I am creating a new vocabulary of movements."

She illustrates her adaptations by example. A traditional movement of a boat across

water is shown by the dancer taking tiny elegant steps in a rolling motion. For the

scene in Othello where his boat travels from Venice to Cyprus, Sophiline has used

a more exaggerated and definite bobbing motion - using the same form, but providing

a modern twist.

One of the actresses in the production, Koy Sina, says that this was one of her favorite

scenes, along with the imagery of the scarf that Othello gives to Desdemona, one

of the main icons of the play.

"I like how Shakespeare takes one element - the scarf - and makes this insignificant

item the most important thing in the story" said Sina.

Sophiline admits that the students encountered problems portraying the complex emotions

within the play. Traditional pure dance (for example, the Apsara dance) portrays

just one emotion - "and it's usually a happy one" says Sophiline. "It

takes time to learn to express those things [complex emotions] through dance."

Chheng Phon agrees, noting the complexity of Othello's jealousy over Desdemona.

"Shakespeare has a great humanity," he says. "To succeed, Sophiline

has to know the Khmer culture well, and also the western culture."

Sophiline points out that this is not the first time that a non-Cambodian story has

been adapted by Cambodian culture. "Look at the Reamker," she said, "it's

an adaptation of a non-Cambodian story, the Indian Ramayana. The Cambodians made

their own interpretation of it, so I did the same with Othello."

The names of the characters have been changed to Khmer so that they fit in with lyrical

adaptations better. The characters themselves were also modeled on the four main

characters of Cambodian dance: the demon (Othello), the Prince (Cassio) the Princess

(Desdemona) and the monkey (Iago).

"Iago fits well in the monkey's traditional role" says Sophiline. "He

does create problems, he is cunning, the trickster, like the monkey in traditional

Khmer dance."

The Othello production is a culmination of Sophiline's many years' appreciation of

dance and theater in her home country.

As a girl of 14, she began to study dance at the School of Fine Arts under her tutor,

Soth Sam On.

Sophiline's teacher had a strong influence on her, and it was generally acknowledged

that Sophiline would go on to teach others what she had learnt. ("When you are

a dancer, you don't create a book or a PhD for others to remember your work by",

she says, "you create students.").

But then in 1991 Sophiline married an American and left for the States.

While she taught in America, and kept up her ties with the Cambodian community there,

she always felt a sadness that she had not been able to fulfill her teacher's wish

of training students in Cambodia.

Now, with her Othello project under way, she has the chance to do just that.

The play was performed and videotaped on 27 June, but to a private audience only.

Theater-goers will have to wait for a chance to see the production in its full glory,

but if Sophiline's plans are anything to go by, they won't have to wait long.

"I would like to put on not only a full public performance, with a question

and answer session for the audience, but make a film of the show, perhaps at Angkor

Wat, and even take the production on an international tour," she says.

Chheng Phon admires his niece's enthusiasm for her work.

"It's a cultural communication between the west and the east," he muses,

"and it's a combination that should be encouraged."


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