In the first of what is hoped will be many performances held at experimental venues across Cambodia, mesmerising dances choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro took place atop the capital’s Canadia Tower. Words by Marissa Carruthers.

The city quietly hums below; the sounds of rush hour traffic sitting a world away from the strangely silent air. A gentle breeze wafts, spreading the hushed excitement shared by the intimate audience at the latest venue to host celebrated choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s work – the 118-metre high helipad at the top of the capital’s Canadia Tower.

The almost full moon shimmers as the music starts. The audience is unable to take its eyes off the sole dancer who flutters across the stage; the jewels on her intricate costume also dancing under the gentle light.

“This really is quite special,” said a clearly emotional Cheam Shapiro, addressing the audience during the short interval between the two performances.

The seed was planted for Dancing Above the Sky in 2015 when event co-organiser Alexis de Suremain, co-owner of MAADS, approached Cheam Shapiro, director of Sophiline Arts Ensemble, about putting on an event somewhere unique.

“I thought the idea was intriguing, but, for whatever reason, we didn’t find the right project,” she says. “Then last year he brought up the idea of performing on the helipad. My immediate reaction was, “Wow. How cool’.”

The result is Dancing Above the Sky, which saw exquisite performances of Neang Neak and a reinterpretation of Cheam Shapiro’s ballet, Munkul Lokey.

While Neang Neak involved only a single performer, Munkul Lokey saw 11 of the troupe’s 12 performers carry out a beautiful rendition of Cheam Shapiro’s work commissioned in 2008 by the Guggenheim Museum for its Works and Process series.

As part of the project, Cheam Shapiro was asked to choreograph classical Cambodian ballet to American avant-garde composer John Zorn’s take on the biblical Song of Songs.

It was the first time Cheam Shapiro had been tasked with choreographing Cambodian dance to non-Cambodian music, and the result is outstanding. Dealing with the themes of intimacy and love, bodies intertwine as the delicate hand gestures and foot work are carried out to Hebrew chants and spiritual music.

“We’re a classical dance company that is going to perform on top of a skyscraper,” she says. “The first dance, Neang Neak, is about feeling out of place, but also about coming to terms with that oddity. The second is an integration of contemporary interpretations of ancient Hebrew and of ancient Khmer culture. It’s cosmopolitan; you don’t get any more out of place or cosmopolitan than this programme.”

For Cheam Shapiro this is another step in her life ambition to help revive Cambodian classical dance, make it relevant in today’s age and showcase its beauty to the world, and modern Cambodia.

“As the capital, Phnom Penh should have multiple performance spaces offering year-round programming,” she says. “The residents of this city deserve access to high quality art. I hope the helipad at Canadia Tower can become one more venue where living culture thrives.”

As a child surviving under the Khmer Rouge, Cheam Shapiro’s only escape was her secret world of dance; closing her eyes she would imagine the celestial apsaras and momentarily forget the atrocities around her. However, it wasn’t until she was 13 that she was able to finally pursue her passion.

In 1981, she enrolled at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, where she was taught by four surviving Royal Palace dance masters. A year before graduating she met her husband John, and the couple moved to California in 1991.

Enrolling with UCLA, Cheam Shapiro expanded her dance skillset, and in 2002 launched Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach to teach traditional dance to the area’s large Cambodian community. In 2006, the couple returned to Cambodia where they formed Khmer Arts Ensemble, later renamed Sophiline Arts Ensemble, recruiting top dance graduates, musicians and singers to create what has become an internationally-acclaimed dance troupe.

Famous for fusing old and new, the troupe has pushed boundaries, creating a new genre of contemporary Cambodian dance that proudly pays testament to its roots. Her award-winning work has been shown across the globe, from America and Europe to China and Indonesia.

Last month, the troupe performed at the official launch party for Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father.

With Dancing Above the City hailed a success and plans already in the pipeline for another helipad spectacular of a different nature, organisers Dara Airport Hotel and MAADS are also hoping to shake up the capital’s creative offerings in 2017. Definitely watch this space.

Sophiline Arts Ensemble is performing A Bend in the River at Chaktomuk Hall from Mar. 31 to Apr. 2. The performance of Phka Sla can be seen at the University of Battambang on May 6 and in Kampot in July. For information, visit khmerarts.org/sophiline-arts-ensemble.