Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Q&A: ‘When I create a work, I look into the past’




Q&A: ‘When I create a work, I look into the past’

Cambodian dancers show their American counterparts how it’s done at the Khmer Arts theatre.
Cambodian dancers show their American counterparts how it’s done at the Khmer Arts theatre. Eli Meixler

Q&A: ‘When I create a work, I look into the past’

In conversation with two choreographers: Sophiline Shapiro and Mark Morris

Mark Morris and Sophiline Shapiro are two of the most widely respected dance choreographers within their respective fields. The Mark Morris Dance Group is known in the US for its exuberant, inventive style, while Shapiro’s Khmer Arts has been a pioneering force in the re-invigoration of traditional Cambodian dance. On the last day of Morris’s two-week trip to the Kingdom, the choreographers joined forces to lead an afternoon of workshops at the Khmer Arts Theatre in Takhmao. Afterwards, they sat down together to talk.

Phnom Penh Post: You’ve both gone from being dancers to directing your own companies. How did that transition come about?
 Mark Morris: I didn’t intend to have a dance company. I was a very good dancer, and I started choreographing when I was about 15. I had my first real concert at 24 or so.

Sophiline Shapiro and Mark Morris.
Sophiline Shapiro and Mark Morris. Eli Meixler

I decided that if I wanted to rehearse and present our work, and I wanted to pay people and give them insurance, and for it to be a real job, it would have to be a dance company. It started as peers and friends and it still is, except now I’m twice as old as them.

Sophiline Shapiro: Very similar. Khmer Arts was created by me and John [Shapiro] in 2002. In 2006 I realised that coming back to Cambodia and developing these works for three months at a time was kind of difficult for me. 

I wanted to create an environment where the dancers can be taken care of. I would love to have insurance for them. As we grow older our bodies are aching, and we should be having assistance then to take care of us.

Mark: What you must do is know that your career as a dancer is going to end, and you have to be prepared to do something else.

PPP: As choreographers, you’ve both been celebrated for combining traditional forms with contemporary movement. Do you think there’s a particular power that comes from that arrangement?
Mark: But there’s no other way to work. There’s no such thing as sui generis [something that is not like anything else] – it can’t be done. I’m going to make up a dance, and I can do anything I want. It doesn’t even matter if it’s old or new. Somebody made up walking, and we all walk. All dancing is walking, running, turning. I don’t own the rights to spinning, it just feels good.

PPP: Sophiline, do you feel that same freedom?
Sophiline: In a certain way. When I create a work, I like to look into the past, to see what is the great thing of the past and what is the failure of the past. Another thing is I look to the future. I do learn from many choreographers in the world.

PPP: Mark, you have spoken in the past about dance as an action that highlights our own mortality. What do you mean by that?
Mark: Well, it can only be done by living people.

Sophiline: What is a dance? The dance is the shape that we as women shape our bodies into in the dance. If we just walked you wouldn’t know that we were dancers.

Mark: Of course you would. You walk different! Sorry – go ahead.

A performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group.
A performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Sophiline: So what makes us dancers is when we do this, and you can only see dance when we dance. And I think that is the most valuable thing about dance. You have to come and see it.

Mark: Right, but also dance, as far as I’m concerned, is not much more than an organised activity that has a pulse. People were using rhythm to coordinate efforts before there was any language. I was teaching skipping to these dancers because as soon as you start learning how to dance you forget how to skip. It takes an hour to teach the thing that you made up when you were six.

Sophiline: These are the things that I would like to explore. I see that in Cambodian dance we don’t roll, we don’t leap, we don’t turn.

Mark: Because it’s too hot! I’ve noticed that hot weather dancing is very different to cold weather dancing. In Northern European dancing there’s lots of jumping to stay warm, and they’re very often group dances where people are together holding hands.

Sophiline: I try to incorporate new things, but only if it fits to the aesthetic. For example, when we pose our leg to the back, I try to push it a little bit higher. And I try to incorporate leaping movements. I – the one who created the movement – can do it, but my dancers can’t.

Mark: Sure they can, you saw them today. They’re young people – they can do anything.

PPP: How have the dancers found the experience?
Mark: I’d say they’re having the time of their lives. Most of them are in this part of the world for the first time.

Sophiline: Our dancers? They were nervous! We just got back from Singapore so they’re kind of tired, but they were enjoying it. You are such a good teacher that you turn them around, make them more enthusiastic, and I appreciate that.

Mark: I allowed them to be more enthusiastic, I didn’t make them. I won’t make them!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

MOST VIEWED

  • School reopening to be postponed until November

    Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron on Tuesday wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen requesting a delay of school reopening across the Kingdom until November, when the new academic year begins. In his letter, Chuon Naron said the postponement is warranted to avoid the new

  • Foreigners in Kingdom must now register in FPCS system

    The Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Immigration (GDI) announced that it would not grant visa extensions to foreigners staying in Cambodia if their names are not listed on the Foreigners Present in Cambodia System (FPCS) by July 1. Foreign nationals can register in the

  • Covid-19 at ‘alarming rate’, health ministry says

    The Covid-19 risk level for individual transmission is at an “alarming rate” in the Kingdom and its probability is “not low”, warned Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine. “Cambodia’s coronavirus scenario is classified as being at an early stage of the pandemic because of ongoing

  • Mandatory quarantine for 30,000 workers begins

    Some of the roughly 30,000 workers from factories and enterprises across the Kingdom who went on leave during Khmer New Year began their government-imposed 14-day quarantine on Monday. Speaking at a press conference while visiting workers at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on Monday, Ministry

  • Unemployed to get $40 per month

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training has instructed enterprises, business owners and travel agencies in five provinces to prepare the proper forms for the suspension of employment contracts. This, it said, will make it easier for the ministry to transfer $40 a month to workers

  • Gov’t travel ban flouted

    While the majority of Cambodians have paid heed to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order to stay put and not travel during the Khmer New Year – the holidays of which were also postponed – several hundred have left Phnom Penh nonetheless. They have allegedly breached provincial

  • G20 energy ministers struggle to finalise oil output cuts

    Top oil producers struggled to finalise production cuts during a virtual summit held by Group of 20 (G20) energy ministers on Friday, despite US President Donald Trump’s mediation efforts to end a standoff with Mexico. The final G20 communique appeared to gloss over simmering divisions

  • Kingdom revises travel restriction order

    The government on Friday eased the district and provincial border restrictions issued on Thursday. People are now allowed to cross districts within their provinces. Phnom Penh and Kandal province are to be treated as a single region where people are allowed to travel freely. In

  • Private schools struggling

    The Cambodian Higher Education Association has claimed that 113 private educational establishments are facing bankruptcy because of their inability to pay rent and staff salaries in light of nationwide school closures caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. It said the financial trouble started when the Ministry of

  • Khmer New Year holidays postponed

    In an effort to halt Covid-19 infections in the Kingdom, Prime Minister Hun Sen has postponed the Khmer New Year holidays scheduled from April 13 to 16. While the people will not have their usual break, nor will there be any public celebrations or gatherings at pagodas,