Celebrating Forced Marriages That Blossomed, Through Ballet

Like any flower, the phka sla grows, blossoms, then eventually withers and dies. But as a central feature of Cambodian weddings—handed from the groom to the bride as their journey begins—its symbolism can remain alive long after its petals have fallen.

“The blossoming of the phka sla can last a lifetime,” choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro said on Tuesday. “When an old couple who went through so many things…still are together, we say that their phka sla has blossomed throughout their lives.”

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Ballerinas rehearse a scene from “Phka Sla”. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

In her Khmer classical ballet premiering on Friday night in Phnom Penh, titled “Phka Sla,” Ms. Cheam Shapiro celebrates those couples forced to marry during the Khmer Rouge regime who managed to keep their phka sla in bloom.

The climate of violence and fear that defined that era is conveyed in the ballet through the use of black for the dancers’ traditional costumes with color accents highlighting key moments or characters.

This 70-minute work was inspired by testimonies at the Khmer Rouge tribunal over the last two years. Among the focuses of the second trial against regime leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were alleged policies around forced marriages, and several women spoke of being raped either by “husbands” they had never met or Khmer Rouge officials when they refused to consummate the relationship.

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A dancer rehearses a scene from Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s ballet ‘Phka Sla’ on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Theresa de Langis, a leading researcher on forced marriages under the Khmer Rouge, asked Ms. Cheam Shapiro whether she would create a work on the topic. She agreed and wrote the ballet around the true stories of three couples married during the regime: two marriages that ended in violence and tragedy, and a third that lasted happily after the fall of Pol Pot.

For the music, Ms. Cheam Shapiro turned to Him Sophy, a Cambodian composer who writes for both Western classical and Khmer traditional instruments.

He started working on the score last May and finished just a few weeks ago, he said on Tuesday. Ms. Cheam Shapiro had written a dance scenario that included 16 dancers, six musicians as well as two narrators telling the stories. Thus, the music written for Khmer traditional instruments had to factor in those spoken parts.

“We always have some challenges,” Mr. Sophy said, perhaps understating the complexity of his task.

The text will be read in Khmer during the performance while English subtitles are displayed.

For Pich Ang, a Cambodian co-lawyer for victims taking part in the tribunal, the dance will be a reparation for forced-marriage victims who can never receive compensation for their suffering.

“The public will pay very much attention to the dance and also to the content of the message,” he said. “This is a very powerful method to transmit the message and I hope that people will appreciate the dance and also have some reflections with regard to what happened.”

Where: Chaktomuk Hall

When: Friday and Saturday, 7 pm; Sunday, 4 pm

Price: Free admission


Throughout the weekend, a mobile exhibition on forced marriages under the Khmer Rouge will be held by the NGO Kdei Karuna in the lobby of the Chaktomuk Hall in Phnom Penh. Both the ballet and exhibition were created as part of the reparation mandate of the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Victim Support Section, said Yim Sotheary, program coordinator for Kdei Karuna. “They provide a platform for victims of forced marriages to voice their history,” she said.

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