In 1975, when Pol Pot’s repressive communist regime took the Cambodian capital by force, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was 8 years old. Her family was forced to flee to the countryside. “I survived,” the choreographer explained in a Skype interview from Phnom Penh last week, “but my dad and two brothers passed away.”
More than 30 years have passed since the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but Shapiro says her life’s work is an attempt to make sense of that period of extreme upheaval, violence, and loss.
Today, Shapiro is the artistic director of Khmer Arts Ensemble, a professional dance troupe that tours internationally, sharing classical Cambodian dance with the larger world. In addition to preserving the nation’s dance traditions, the company also performs neoclassical works, choreographed by Shapiro, that combine Cambodian cultural heritage with contemporary aesthetics and themes. One such work is The Lives of Giants, based on the epic poem “Reamker,” which is a Buddhist version of the Hindu “Ramayana.” Next Thursday, October 6, Arts & Lectures brings the 20-member Khmer Arts Ensemble to UCSB’s Campbell Hall to perform The Lives of Giants.
“Reamker” is a canonical part of Khmer literature, drama, visual art, and religious festivals, but Shapiro’s aim isn’t simply to retell a well-known story. Instead, she’s using the plot of “Reamker” to offer a solution to what she calls “the cycle of violence.”
The opening episode of the poem tells the story of a giant who guards Shiva’s temple. The gods and goddesses taunt him as they pass through the temple gates, until the giant begs Shiva for help. In response, Shiva endows the giant with a magic finger, warning him to use it only in self-defense. But the seduction of power proves too great, and the giant brings pain and destruction to the gods.
In some ways, The Lives of Giants is a classical Cambodian dance. It incorporates traditional music, glittering costumes, and painted masks. But Shapiro is interested in the future of Cambodian dance, as well as its past, and this piece exemplifies her effort to give these ancient traditions contemporary relevance. “This is a situation that happens all over the world,” she said of the dance’s plot. “Someone exploits the powerless, and when the powerless finally gain power, they seek revenge. It’s a full cycle of misfortune and abuse. And so the question is, ‘How can we find solutions to stop this cycle?’”
“At the end of the last scene, I have all the broken gods and goddesses surround the giant’s body,” she explains. “They all pose in a submission of compassion. The reason I do this is because healing can only occur when both the giant and the gods let go of arrogance.”
This blend of ancient and modern themes shows up in the costumes, which combine leotards with prints based on the carvings at Angkor Wat, as well as in the set and lighting, created by New York designer Marcus Doshi. Choreographically speaking, Shapiro innovates but doesn’t stray too far from her classical roots. “Cambodian classical dance is usually very dignified, stylized, and calm,” she explained, “so when I want to express pain, I use the same characteristics. But instead of having everything balanced, I take everything off balance, or make it crooked.”
For Shapiro, honoring the history of Cambodian dance is as important as creating something new. As one of the first to graduate from the school of classical dance after it was rebuilt in the early 1980s, she remembers a time when that heritage seemed lost forever. “Art is a symbol of culture,” she explained. “It’s sacred. My teachers were devoted to the preservation and revival of Cambodian dance after the Khmer Rouge — they wanted to make sure the form was alive and could go on. So watching and witnessing them inspired me greatly. I feel it’s my mission to transmit the knowledge I gained from them, and also to continue this artistic tradition into the future.”
Cambodia’s Khmer Arts Ensemble will perform The Lives of Giants at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, October 6, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.