For Cambodian Artists, a Dance Performance for Present Times

For the three artists who first sat down three years ago to discuss the creation of the Khmer classical dance “A Bend in the River,” which will be presented for the first time this week in Phnom Penh, the project quickly became very personal.

The legend that choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro had picked to turn into a ballet is about a woman whose family is killed by a crocodile. Reborn as a crocodile, she finds love only to be confronted with the issue of letting go of hate.

Khmer classical dancer Chao Socheata in a scene from Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's dance "A Bend in the River." (Sophiline Arts Ensemble)
Khmer classical dancer Chao Socheata in a scene from Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s dance “A Bend in the River.” (Sophiline Arts Ensemble)

The three Cambodian artists—contemporary music composer Him Sophy, sculptor Sopheap Pich and Ms. Cheam Shapiro—were children during the Khmer Rouge regime. So the question of whether to keep on carrying inside the hatred of those who killed one’s relatives or to eventually let go became quite real for them, Ms. Cheam Shapiro said.

The 70-minute work, which was presented in New York City last year as part of the Season of Cambodia festival, is a Khmer classical ballet for our time, true to Cambodia’s dance and music tradition but brought into today’s world. It is one of the rare—if not the first—full-length works to have ever been created for Khmer classical dance on original music written for traditional instruments.

“Classical dance: The movement, the spirituality, the expressions stay the same,” Ms. Cheam Shapiro explained. “But any extra other things—music, costumes, set, lighting—can be adjustable.

“I think that classical dance is a very adaptable form and…that’s the greatness, the strength of the form,” she said.

For the music, Ms. Cheam Shapiro had appealed to composer Mr. Sophy, a pianist by training who has made a point of combining Western and Cambodian traditional instruments in his works.

Mr. Sophy selected pin peat, a musical form going back centuries and traditionally played with Khmer classical dance. But he made some adjustments.

“I reinvented the double scale of gong and double scale of roneat so it could give me more ability to compose new sounds,” he explained. The gong instrument, for instance, was physically built to order and now consists of two rings of gongs instead of one.

There also had to be a crocodile. Ms. Cheam Shapiro turned to Mr. Sopheap, who last year became one of the rare contemporary artists to have exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“He understood that this is a folktale and that folktales are not realistic,” Ms. Cheam Shapiro said. “So it gave him an opportunity to explore something that could take his rattan sculpture to a different level.” The result was “a very expressive, rattan crocodile,” she added.

During the performance, dancers carry sections of the rattan crocodile sculpture. Such props are a departure from traditional choreography. “My ancestors created great things,” Ms. Cheam Shapiro said. “Now I’m in the 21st century, what do I do? I learn from them,” and take it further, she added.

Performed by 15 dancers from the Sophiline Arts Ensemble, seven musicians and one singer, “A Bend in the River” will be presented Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at Chaktomuk Conference Hall with support from the Ministry of Culture.

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