Choreographer’s Disciples Set to Stage New Classical Dances

New works of Khmer classical dance, such as those that will premiere Saturday night in Takhmao City, are rare occurrences.

As a choreographer must first master the intricacies of every complex movement in the traditional dance, which take years of daily practice to achieve, and then have the ability to conceive new works that reflect the dance tradition, few have ventured to create new works.

A scene from the Khmer classical dance 'Phob.' From left: Chao Socheata, Sot Sovanndy, Som Saymalyrou, Keo Kuntearom and Mot Pharan. (John Shapiro)
A scene from the Khmer classical dance ‘Phob.’ From left: Chao Socheata, Sot Sovanndy, Som Saymalyrou, Keo Kuntearom and Mot Pharan. (John Shapiro)

However dancer and choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro—a pioneer in the field who has staged her Khmer classical ballets in Cambodia, the U.S. and Europe since the late 1990s—decided a few years ago to offer choreography classes to her company’s dancers.

Some of their works will be staged Saturday night in the theater of Ms. Cheam Shapiro’s Khmer Arts compound in Takhmao City under the title of “Tompeang Snong Russey,” or “bamboo shoots come after bamboo tree.”

“I’m very pleased that the next generation is engaging in leadership role, taking the initiative of doing their own works,” she said. “They start thinking, interpreting their experience and translating it into Cambodian dance, which is their language…making dance relevant to them in the present time.”

The dance “Robam Virayeak” was a group effort as the five dancers performing it took part in its creation with Ms. Cheam Shapiro advising.

“Everybody was busy, but we were able to meet twice a week to discuss it,” said Sot Sovanndy who was responsible for the work.

“Everyone gave her idea to create the story and classical dance movements.”

Drawing inspiration from an episode of Khmer classical ballet in which an army general prepares his soldiers for battle, the dancers reinterpreted the scene as people getting ready to face the numerous obstacles one encounters in modern-day life.

Ms. Sovanndy, who studied classical dance at the Ministry of Culture’s Secondary School of Fine Arts and joined the Sophiline Arts Ensemble in 2007, did not find the transition from performer to choreographer easy to accomplish.

“It means carrying the burden and responsibility of the dance, of the choreography being right or wrong, easy or difficult,” the 24-year-old dancer said. “It’s very demanding, but also very interesting…to be able to come up with an idea for a story and develop a dance around it.”

Sot Sovanndy, left, and Sao Somaly perform in 'Robam Virayeak.' (John Shapiro)
Sot Sovanndy, left, and Sao Somaly perform in ‘Robam Virayeak.’ (John Shapiro)

Chao Socheata, who choreographed “Phob,” or womb, which will be performed by six dancers, also found the process challenging. In rehearsals, she said.

“One must keep in mind the story, the movements, the staging and how to direct the dancers.”

The 27-year-old dancer, who also studied at the secondary school before joining the Sophiline Arts Ensemble in 2006, had been thinking about addressing domestic violence through Khmer classical dance for several years.

“Whenever a father hits his wife, the couple is affected at 50 percent while their kids suffer 100 percent,” she said. “If the kids had a choice, they would stay in the womb with their parents taking care of each other and their children, with love and no violence.

“In the dance, I try to express this with a mixture of contemporary approach and classical dance.”

The third dance entitled “Beloved” was conceived and will be performed as a solo work by a long-time student of Ms. Cheam Shapiro.

Prumsodun Ok is a Cambodian-American born in Long Beach in 1987 who began studying with Ms. Cheam Shapiro at 13 and now serves as associate artistic director of the Khmer Arts Academy, founded by Ms. Cheam Shapiro in Long Beach. His work has been presented in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Mexico City, but not in Cambodia until this week.

In the dance, he revives an ancient Khmer ritual for lovemaking, but adapts it to reflect the experience of gay men.

“When we look at Khmer classical dance in its most ritualistic form, it’s like a mirror of heaven: It’s the warmth, harmony and well-being of heaven reflected in the choreographies,” Mr. Ok said.

“If there is no image of gay men in this mirror, that means we don’t exist, that means that people can make us invisible, that means that people can abuse us…. So for me to revive this ritual lovemaking and to cast that into the bodies of gay men creates a platform for the [gay] community within the tradition and therefore into the world.”

Mr. Ok has trained with Ms. Cheam Shapiro in both male and female roles in Khmer classical dance.

“Teaching, I have to know the different aesthetics of the characters: male, female, giant characters,” Ms. Cheam Shapiro explained. “So whoever wants to learn those roles has to fit those aesthetics whether they are male or female.”

Mr. Ok will perform the role in the female aesthetics, which is very challenging for him, Ms. Cheam Shapiro noted, adding that the all-male and all-female forms of dance in Cambodia have a tradition of men performing female roles and vice versa.

Saturday night’s performance will start at 7 p.m. at the Khmer Arts Theater, located on Street 115 in Takhmao City.

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