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The Near Extinction of Cambodian Classical Dance

The Near Extinction of Cambodian Classical Dance

Cambodian classical dancer and teacher Sophiline Cheam Shapiro speaks about the dance's political and cultural roles, how it was almost destroyed by Pol Pot, its politicization under the Vietnamese communists, and its revival today.

Former palace dancers went into hiding for fear that they would be executed.

By Rashaan Meneses

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro understands firsthand the profound relationship between art and politics and she uses her skills as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer to continue the long tradition of Cambodian classical dance and also to test the limits and boundaries of its meaning and purpose. On Thursday, April 15, 2004, Shapiro gave a talk for the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies on "The Two-Headed Naga: Cambodian Classical Dance as a Symbol of Cultural Rebirth and as a Tool of Political Propaganda."

Shapiro briefly described the history of classical dance, which has been practiced in Cambodia for centuries. Born in the Hindu temples of Angkor and long supported by the royal court, the dance was performed as form of ritual prayer. Each year the king would conduct a buong suong ceremony to ask the heavens for help when the country faced floods, droughts, wars, and diseases. In this sense, classical dancers were the messengers of these pleas for help. It was believed that divine spirits would possess the dancers during their performance and once the dance had concluded, the wishes and prayers of the king and his country would be granted. These dances also symbolized and affirmed the connection between heaven and earth, which was essential to Cambodian thought and culture.

For the talk, Shapiro presented several excerpts from different videos of classical dance pieces, one of them featuring the famed Princess Buppha Devi performing. Cambodian classical dance is an elaborate and elegant display comprised of complex hand movements and gestures. As Shapiro explained, each gesture has its own individual meaning and when combined with others they create a story. The costumes for the dance are an art form as well. Traditionally, many of the headpieces and jewelry were made of gold. Because this dance form was an expensive production it was solely performed at the king's court. Many of the dancers came from the court and were taught the form at an early age. However, the dance was not restricted to royalty. Selected students came from various remote villages to learn and practice. Since its inception, classical dance was to inspire the nation and encourage morals and values among the people. Most of the themes and stories told through the dance revolved around divine gods and goddesses.

In 1970, a coup sent Cambodian royalty into exile, and while the dance was still practiced in the palace, it became a part of the University of Fine Arts. When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in April 1975, the university was closed and all of Phnom Penh's residents were forced to leave.

From 1975 to 1979, former palace dancers went into hiding for fear that they would be executed for their association with royal traditions. The only dance and music allowed during that time were Maoist-style songs that celebrated the revolution. Shapiro herself was eight years old when the Khmer Rouge assumed power in Cambodia. Her personal history would later inform and shape her artistic work as a dancer and practitioner of classical dance.

In January 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and drove out the Khmer Rouge. The handful of surviving artists (perhaps 80-90 percent of traditional artists had perished in less than four years) sought each other out and formed troupes and colonies throughout the country, hoping to re-create their precious art forms. In 1980, the government organized a national arts festival at Phnom Penh's Bassac Theatre in order to determine how many artists were still alive. The School of Fine Arts reopened in 1981, enrolling its first class of 111 students to train in the traditional arts. (The school was renamed the University of Fine Arts in 1988 and Royal University of Fine Arts upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1993.) Shapiro was a member of that first class. At the same time, the government was questioning the significance of classical dance, which was still associated with royalty and feudalism. General sentiment was that the dance was too slow and dealt with gods and divinity, issues that were no longer relevant. As Shapiro put it, "Because there was a misunderstanding of who and what the art form was for, classical dance faced extinction once again."

Throughout her talk, Shapiro emphasized that the people of Cambodia were desperate to regain a sense of pride and national identity for their country. There was a small minority of dancers who risked their lives to defend the dance, arguing that it belonged to all of Cambodia. They asserted that classical dance was ritually performed to help the country endure and face difficulties and, in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was in dire need of such help. The art form was then forced to reinvent itself and redefine its meaning and purpose. The traditional dances were reinterpreted to reflect the change in politics and the current state of Cambodia as a "liberated" nation.

Shapiro cited an example of a traditional dance that was reinterpreted. The story of this dance centered on the God of Thunder and the Goddess of the Ocean. The two deities were classmates fighting over a crystal ball. Traditionally, the dance was supposed to illustrate the difference between ignorance and enlightenment, but in the eighties this dance was transformed to reflect the differences between communism and capitalism. Many traditional stories and dances were revised in this manner and new themes were imposed on the meaning and story of the dance. Such new themes included the relationships Cambodia had with Laos and Vietnam and the glories of Marxism and Leninism. Ironically, though, most of the Cambodian public was unaware of the new interpretations. They merely saw dancers performing. It was the performers themselves who informed the government what the dances were supposed to symbolize, but the performances were primarily left to interpretation.

Once this functionality came into play, classical dance had the support of the government. In 1984, the Ministry of Culture and Information organized and sponsored a tour to the remote provinces in order to demonstrate to the people that their government was authentically Khmer. About forty students aged nine to eighteen toured throughout the country, performing traditional dances with their new themes and meanings. Shapiro recounted some of the performances she gave with her fellow dancers on the back of a Russian flatbed truck. Cambodia was engaged in a civil war at the time, so some parts of the country were too hazardous to travel through and the troupe needed to pass through Vietnam to avoid danger.

There was one town in the remote northeast of Cambodia that Shapiro distinctly remembered. The dancers called the residents there "the double-faced people." During the day, the government would come into this town and preach about the benefits of socialism and the townspeople would have to go along and show support. At night, the Khmer Rouge would come in and spread their own propaganda "so the town had to keep switching back and forth."

Another tour visit Shapiro recalled was a performance in the middle of a rubber plantation. This area was also considered very dangerous because the Khmer Rouge had a stronghold there. The performers were advised to dance earlier than their usual nighttime performance, so the dance was scheduled for three in the afternoon. They were also discouraged from wearing too much make-up for fear that the village might be attacked and the dancers would have to flee and blend in with the townspeople.

According to Shapiro, it was not a stellar performance because the dancers weren't in full costume and many of them, including herself, were too nervous to perform well. However, after the show, an older man in ragged and torn clothes approached Shapiro and asked her if she was a human being. He wondered if she "ate rice and went to the bathroom" as he did because he couldn't believe that anything associated with his miserable life could be so lovely. At that point, Shapiro understood what these dances meant to people who had seen only violence and poverty for so many years.

This point was reaffirmed when, after another performance in a different village, a market vendor had informed the dancers that Khmer Rouge guerillas came during the performance with guns and rocket launchers with the intention of killing the troupe. But, because they liked the dance so much, they stayed until the end and then went home.

This incident taught Shapiro "what art can do, how it can change the negative into positive." From then on, classical dance began to have even greater meaning than anyone could have anticipated because it restored a sense of beauty that the country had long since lost. The dance became a significant force, rejuvenating national pride and encouraging artistic and cultural rebirth for the people of Cambodia.

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Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was a member of the first generation to graduate from the [Royal] University of Fine Arts after the fall of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and was a member of the faculty from 1988 to 1991. With the university's ensemble, she toured India, the Soviet Union, the USA, and Vietnam. She immigrated to Southern California in 1991. Shapiro studied dance ethnology at UCLA and has taught classical dance in its World Arts & Cultures Department. Among other awards, she has received a Durfee Foundation Master Musician Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Irvine Fellowship in Dance. Her essay "Songs My Enemies Taught Me" was published in Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, compiled by Dith Pran, edited by Kim DePaul and published in 1997 by Yale University.

In April 2000, Shapiro premiered her concert-length classical dance drama Samritechak in Phnom Penh with the RUFA ensemble. The piece has toured to the Hong Kong Arts Festival, Southern California, and the Venice Biennale. A solo work, "The Glass Box," premiered in Los Angeles in 2002 and toured to Cambodia and India in 2003. A new piece exploring the theme of culture shock, "Seasons of Migration," will make its world premiere with the RUFA ensemble at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at California State University, Long Beach, in April 2005 as part of a six-city national tour. Shapiro is co-founder and Artistic Director of the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, California. The academy is a performing arts organization dedicated to fostering the vitality of Cambodian arts and culture. Its resident ensemble performs regionally and on tour.

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Published: Friday, May 7, 2004