Khmer Classical Dance Explores Shakespearean Themes

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro sees herself as a bridge-builder, not in the ordinary sense, but as a teacher of classical dance in the US, and as a choreographer here in Cambodia.

The dancer-choreographer’s latest endeavor seeks to join classical Khmer dance with William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” in “Sam­ritechak.” The adaptation, she said, will have something for enthus­iasts of the English playwright and Khmer dance alike.

“A Western audience can ap­preciate the Cambodian aesthetic through something familiar to them,” Shapiro explained Tues­day after a rehearsal. “And Cam­bodians can see a Western story through dance that they are familiar with.”

“Samritechak,” a work that beg­an to take shape more than 10 years ago, will be performed at 6 pm Sat­urday and Sunday at the North Campus Theater of the Royal University of Fine Arts. Tickets are 3,000 riel, available at Unesco, the French Cultural Center and at the door.

Like “Othello,” “Samritechak” is the story of the tragic and rapid descent of a successful general, who is manipulated into jealousy that leads him to kill his new bride and commit suicide. It also is a story exploring race, class and gender, as well as the collision of new ideas with old ideals, said Shapiro, who wrote and chor­eographed the dance with funds from a prestigious US grant.

Samritechak will include 15 dancers in traditional costume, 11 musicians playing xylophones, reeds, drums and other instruments, and four singers who narrate the story and characters’ dialogue. Nearly every hand movement in the dance has a specific meaning, coinciding with the Khmer narration. Subtitles in English and French will be provided.

Shapiro’s version portrays Konitha Devi, the precious ref­ined wife of Samritechak, as a her­oine who represents new ideas and their collision with the status quo. It is a story where the heroine also becomes the victim, subject to the wrongful jealousy of her husband.

“She’s very clever,” producer Fred Frumberg said of Shapiro. “The play has a lot of parallels with Cambodia.”

Shapiro said she wanted to adapt the play so that the audience learns “to be responsible for your actions.”

Her adaptation shows Samri­techak as a bad husband, “blind­ed by his jealousy.”

She said she did not want to play heavily on the political aspects of the play, because her mes­sage is meant for all people. “I think many women here are probably in the same situation as Desdemona was,” she said, referring to the unjust treatment of Shakes­peare’s woman character.

She also sees herself as a “cultural broker,” she said, showing the world that Cambodians are more than just victims of the Pol Pot regime.

“The killing fields are not all that Cambodia is about.”







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