Choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has championed classical Cambodian dance across the globe. Marissa Carruthers finds out about her mission to keep tradition alive, with photography by Rudi Towiro.

Classical Cambodian dance. Choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has championed classical Cambodian dance across the globeAs a girl living in war-ravaged Cambodia, 12-year-old Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s only escape was her secret world of dance. Closing her eyes, she would transform into a celestial apsara and forget the atrocities that she had survived.

“Cambodia in 1981 was devastated. I was very poor, I had lice in my hair and parasites in my belly and it was hard,” she recalls with a shudder.

Taking a deep breath, the Phnom Penh-born choreographer closes her eyes, stands tall and gracefully assumes an apsara pose before gliding across the floor, temporarily abandoning the memories that haunt her. “When I danced I felt all the joys it brought with it. I could forget myself and the life I was living in,” she adds softly.

Determined to pursue the passion that comforted her during her darkest days – as a seven-year-old Khmer Rouge soldiers ordered her family out of their home in the capital to carry out hard labour in the countryside – Sophiline enrolled at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

Many artists had perished under the ultra-communist regime and Sophiline, whose father and two brothers died under Pol Pot, was taught by the four surviving Royal Palace dance masters, including one of the country’s most celebrated classical dancers, Soth Sam On, a member of the Royal Ballet from 1935 until the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.

“I was 13 when I first put on the dance costume,” remembers Sophiline, who dedicated her younger days to learning the ancient art form, which stretches back more than 1,000 years. “I felt like an angel; so special. And it made me proud to represent Cambodian culture. As a Cambodian woman, I felt honoured to be able to perform and embody this tradition.”

The year before Sophiline left university, she met John Shapiro. An assistant director in Hollywood, he was visiting his sister who was researching a PhD in Cambodia. They fell in love and the couple moved to California after Sophiline graduated in 1991.

There, Sophiline seized every opportunity to expand her skills, enrolling in dance ethnology at UCLA and taking studio classes in genres such as Indian classical, ballet, Japanese, Korean and African dance. However, racked with guilt for having left Cambodia, Sophiline felt it her duty to keep the tradition of apsara alive.

In 2002, the husband and wife team launched the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, California. The school was dedicated to fostering traditional arts within the town’s large population of Cambodian refugees.

But for Sophiline, it was not enough. In 2006, the couple returned to Cambodia to set up Khmer Arts Ensemble, recently renamed Sophiline Art Ensemble. They recruited 14 top graduates from Sophiline’s former university, along with seven musicians and a singer, and set about creating what has become an internationally acclaimed dance troupe.

“Coming back to Cambodia was like coming home. I lived for 15 years in the US and always felt I could offer more here,” Sophiline says. “This is the right place for me as I can work with dedicated artists and prepare them for the next generation to carry on both traditional repertoire and create new works.”

While keeping classical Cambodian dance alive is important to Sophiline, she is keen to push boundaries, developing a new genre of Khmer Contemporary Dance. This sees classical Cambodian dance given a modern twist by introducing contemporary moves and bringing ancient folktales into today’s world.

“To move forward, Cambodia has to look into its past and cherish the greatness and creativity that was there so we can create great talent in the present as well as inventing and driving greater works for the future,” she says.

Her talents have led to her choreographing and producing a string of performances, including a classical Cambodian dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello called Samrithechak. The stunning works have wowed audiences in America, Europe, China and Indonesia.

“While it’s important Cambodians know about the arts, it’s amazing to also share our talents with the rest of the world,” she remarks. “The world can see that Cambodia is not just about Angkor Wat, the Khmer Rouge and genocide, it’s about all these other great achievements in our time.”

Sophiline’s dedication to the arts has not gone unrecognised. In 2009, she was made a National Heritage Fellow, America’s highest honour in the folk and traditional arts sectors. Last year, to coincide with the premiere of her latest show, A Bend in the River, she became a prestigious McKnight International Artist Fellow, receiving a grant to develop her work.

A Bend in the River puts a modern spin on a spellbinding folk tale of love, heartbreak, vengeance, consequence and redemption, and is set to make its Cambodian debut from Jun. 13 to 15 at the Chaktomuk Theatre.

With Sophiline and her troupe at the helm, the performance has been brought to life with the help of some of Cambodia’s finest, including composer Him Sophy and sculptor Pich Sopheap, who has created elaborate puppets for the show.

“I’m delighted to be able to show this in Cambodia,” Sophiline says. “If we are to keep out art culture and heritage alive then it’s important performances like this take place and I’m proud to be able to do this.”

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