Choreographer Fuses Traditional Dance With Contemporary Themes

In the beginning, all is joy in the euphoria of discovery. Then comes the acute feeling of being different and separate, followed by the im­pulse to reject one’s past. Still, inner peace and balance return in the end.

This is how Cambodian dance choreo­grapher Sophiline Cheam Sha­piro expresses the stages of culture shock in Seasons of Migration, which will be performed Saturday night at the Royal University of Fine Arts Theater.

The dance is a work-in-progress whose final version will be unveiled in April 2005 in California. Then, the tra­di­tional music featured Saturday will be replaced by the contemporary mu­sic of Cambodian composer Chi­na­ry Ung, whose score has been writ­ten for a chamber music orchestra.

Befitting this tale of adaptation in a new land, the final piece created by two Cambodian-Americans will combine Cambodian classical dance and an original score for Western musical instruments.

Sha­piro was in the first classical dance class formed when the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh reopened in 1981; she moved to the US in 1991.

“Sophiline and I, we come from both worlds,” said Chinary Ung.

Chinary Ung, who has lived in the US since 1964, played Cambodian xylo­phone for classical dance performances for 15 years. In 1989, he be­came the first composer from the US to win the Grawemeyer Award—the music equivalent of the Nobel Prize, according to the magazine Chamber Music. Previous winners of the award had been well-known European composers.

Chinary Ung had seen Shapiro’s Othello—her Cambodian version of the Shakespeare play adapted to traditional Cambodian dance and mu­sic—in 2000.

“I was touched by her work,” he said. This prompted Chinary Ung to collaborate with the choreographer on Seasons of Migration, which he will see for the first time on Saturday.

Since Shapiro wrote the piece for Cambodian classical dance, her interpretation of the four stages of immigrant experience assumes an almost mythical quality.

“Classical dance as an art form is a symbolic form,” she said. “The themes and stories usually performed are about the connection between Heaven and Earth, and the characters are divine beings, kings and queens.”

In Seasons of Migration, Shapiro said, “I maintain those characters, but I bring contemporary themes and adapt them to Cambodian classical dance.”

As in many classical dance pieces, the mythical char­acters of Seasons of Migration live through situations and feel the emotions of human beings, Shapiro said.

For example, “Muni Mekhala and Ream Eyso,” which will be performed in the first part of the program tonight, portray a story of greed and jealousy, she said. In this sacred dance, one character tries to steal a jewel from another character, creating thunder, lightning and rain in the process.

The first part of Seasons of Mi­gration features gods and goddesses who descend to Earth and enjoy their visit.

The second segment, which is a solo performed by university dance-teacher Sam Sathya, focuses on the second stage of culture shock, when a person starts facing problems in his or her new environment and becomes homesick, said Shapiro.

“I use, to reflect that idea, the traditional character of Neang Neak or young female serpent,” she said. Neang Neak suddenly realizes that she has a tail and tries to tear it off. “But she cannot because it’s part of her flesh and blood, so finally she accepts that tail as her uniqueness,” said Shapiro.

The third part is about adaptation, she explained. The character wants to move towards light, which is the future. But she cannot get rid of her shadow—the past. In the end, she embraces both, shadow and light, and embarks on a new journey.

In the last segment, dancers move in pairs to portray Harihara, the god who is half Vishnu and half Shi­va, to symbolize the equilibrium that a person attains as he becomes comfortable in his new life, said Shapiro.

The completed version of Seasons of Migration will premiere in Long Beach, California next year. The Southwest Chamber Music of Pasadena, which commissioned Chinary Ung’s score, will interpret the work for the dancers of the University of Fine Arts.

The Cambodian interpretation of Othello—which has been presented in Phnom Penh, Long Beach, Venice, Hong Kong, and may soon be performed at the Globe Theater in London—also featured dancers and musicians from the university, said John Shapiro, producer of Seasons of Migration and Sophiline Shapiro’s husband.

Saturday’s performance starts at 6 pm. Admission is free.

The Royal University of Fine Arts Theater is at the university’s North Campus. It is located on Street 70, near the old stadium.

For more information, please contact Fred Frumberg at 012-974-271.

Support for Seasons of Migration has been provided by the US National Dance Project, Arts International, the Asian Cultural Council and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Amrita Performing Arts—a Phnom Penh NGO dedicated to the promotion of Cambodian traditional and contemporary dance and theater—assisted with the production of Shapiro’s work; and has set up and coordinated international tours of her dances, said the NGO’s director Fred Frumberg.



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