The dancers move precisely, lively versions of the ancient Apsara figures (for what is dance but animated sculpture? What is sculpture but stone-frozen dance?) and the connection to the deep past is resonant, without a sense of distance. Our ancestors still have much to teach us; we have not been abandoned nor excluded from their lessons. Our cycles were their cycles; their cycles are our cycles.
Since last June, the new Counterspace Theatre at Java Creative Café, Tuol Tompong, has been hosting performances by the dance troupe Sophiline Arts Ensemble, every Thursday and Friday night – one of the best kept secrets in Phnom Penh. The current programme consists of two pieces, one solo and the other a five-hander, eloquently presented and introduced by choreographer and artistic director Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro. The first is a prayer for wellbeing and prosperity, the second, The Lives of Giants, an ancient fable that brings to life recognisable moral concerns of our day.
Through a succession of name and format changes, starting in Long Beach, California in 2002 then relocating to Cambodia in 2006, Sophiline Arts Ensemble has been striving to teach and restore the traditional Cambodian dance forms, and to promote Cambodian culture throughout the world. Along the way, their international performance resume is remarkable, with highlights at the Joyce Theatre in New York, Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Venice Biennale.
Sophiline has frequently been inspired by old stories, such as Shakespeare’s Othello, Mozart’s Magic Flute or tales from the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Sanskrit epic poem the Ramayana), using dance as a form of story telling and a means of confronting contemporary issues.
Sophiline sees this as a cultural bridge. “The Samrithechak (Othello) project (could) help Cambodian audiences learn about Shakespeare through a dance form that they already know. And to help an international audience who are familiar with Shakespeare to appreciate the aesthetic of Cambodian classical dance through a story that they already know.”
Cambodian dance is awash with references to the natural world. The classical hand movements mimic, in succession, the growth from a seed to a shoot to a leaf to a flower to a fruit that then, with a pop, releases the new seed.
“Cambodia is an agricultural society, and therefore the rich soil, water and the heat from the sun play an important role in productivity,” says Sophiline.
The mythology is an interplay between three gods: the god of water, the insatiable giant representing the heat from the sun, and the spirit of the earth.
“Three gods play interacting roles, and the story doesn’t end, it’s always an open ending. So every year these three gods meet, things happen, they separate and then they come again. So that is the cycle of nature and it’s important to our life,” adds Sophiline.
However traditional the dance, there is still a spirit of innovation present. For example, new interpretations of the Reamker in which traditionally silent female characters have spoken parts.
Says Sophiline, “This is a very philosophical approach of Cambodians looking at life, looking at mythology, and how mythology can relate to us and reflect us as well, it reflects us as living people and a philosophical understanding of our world.
“Different productions open the door for me to look for a new possibility in exploring theme and exploring artistic creativity and to bring the dance to the future with us, and make the dance relevant to us. And that’s our purpose.”
For a short taste of Sophiline Arts Ensemble, a performance will be included in Phnom Fem Fest at Chinese House on Saturday.
Elsewhere in the world of dance in Phnom Penh, Counterspace also hosts, by way of contrast, every Saturday and Sunday evening, a work by Prumsodun Ok and NATYARASA: Vajramala, spirit of Khmer dance. And this weekend only, 3 Days of Dance at the French Institute, featuring Nam Narim, New Cambodian Artists, Hun Pen and Belle.