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Garments that turn actors into Gods and Angels

A leading character’s costume can take four people one month to make
A leading character’s costume can take four people one month to make. Kim Hak

Garments that turn actors into Gods and Angels

A new exhibition will show off the artistry behind Cambodian traditional dance’s intricately designed costumes

In Cambodian classical dance, costuming is more than an aesthetic decision. Before each show, performers are carefully sewn into their tightly fitted garments, and the structured fitting makes a new vocabulary of movement possible.

“It makes it more comfortable to have the extreme arch of the back and to hyper extend the elbows, because the shapes are emphasized by that oneness of the body with the costumes,” explains cultural anthropologist and Cambodian dance specialist Toni Shapiro-Phim. “[They] are revealing of the body and encourage a certain aesthetic of movement.”

Kum Sokunthea uses costume-making techniques handed down by word of mouth for generations.
Kum Sokunthea uses costume-making techniques handed down by word of mouth for generations. Charlotte Pert

Opening this Wednesday, a new exhibition at Java Arts is offering a presentation that turns the spotlight on the costumes themselves. Gods and Angels is a retrospective of costumes used in dances by Sophiline Shapiro, Toni’s sister-in-law: the choreographer regularly hailed as a driving force behind the reinvigoration of Cambodian traditional dance.

It’s a show that aims to reveal the intricacy and artistry of designs that, during performances, are experienced as little more than evocative flashes of light and colour. Flattened and hung behind glass, visitors have the chance to experience them as works of art in themselves. 

“Presenting these in an intimate space affords the public an opportunity to engage with the intricacy of patterns, the range of materials, and the ways in which fabrics are pleated and wrapped and layered to create full costumes,” Shapiro-Phim says.  

Tight costumes make new movements possible
Tight costumes make new movements possible. Michael Burr

Today, Sophiline increasingly experiments with contemporary design, but the costumes selected for display here are in Cambodia’s century-old traditional style of costume making. They come from the early part of the choreographer’s career, when she was intent on trying to create costumes that matched the “golden era” of 1960s design, to replace the poor quality textiles that dancers had been making do with when she joined the newly reopened School of Fine Arts in 1981.

This return to the “golden era” applies as much to production methods as to patterns. In an airy studio tucked away in a courtyard behind Street 178’s bustling shop fronts, Sophiline’s costume maker Kum Sokunthea explains that the way she embroiders and cuts the fabric has been handed down by word of mouth. She studied sculpture and drawing at the Royal University of Fine Art, and came to costume making by accident when she married into a family who were well-established in the trade.

“The whole family made the costumes in the Royal Palace,” she recalls. “I learned from my father-in-law, who was a sculpture lecturer.” Four family members, including her children, are needleworkers, and other family members specialise in different parts of the dancers’ ensembles, such as their masks and crowns.

The labour-intensive appearance of the costumes that reveals itself in the Java Café exhibition is no illusion: Sokunthea says that it can take four people one month to make a costume for a lead character.

Tight costumes make new movements possible
Tight costumes make new movements possible. Kim Hak

“Some of my family members changed their job, because they cannot find the big support and value from what they tried hard,” she says, pointing out that the top payment for one of these garments is around $300. But in contrast to other artisanal practices, Sokunthea has no fear that she’s part of a dying art.

She laughs when asked whether technology might rob her of her work. “This sewing can never be made by a machine,” she says, pointing to the bags of sequins and thin embroidery threads she is in the process of applying to a green velvet costume. “It’s all made one by one.”

Despite Gods and Angels opting for a museum-like presentation in keeping with the traditional nature of the fabrics on show, one installation hints at Sophiline’s recent preoccupations with innovative design. Suspended in the room is a three-dimensional installation hung on fishing wire: the glittering costume of the female character Neang Neak, whose long golden sbai [trail] represents the tail of a serpent.

Talking to Som Saymalyrou, the young dancer for whom the costume was made, reminds you once again of the dynamic potential of the room’s ornate hangings. “I’ve worn these kind of costumes for 10 years, and I feel proud of myself,” she says. “Last year, when I went to perform in Singapore, people just came to see me as a superstar.”

Gods and Angels runs from December 3 to January 25 at Java Cafe, #56 Sihanouk Boulevard.

Additional reporting: Vandy Muong.

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