Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has been dubbed the Queen of Apsara, bringing the traditional Cambodian dance form into the 21st century. BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro closes her eyes and glides across the dark wooden floor. She pauses, her posture remaining pristine, holds her head high and looks across her left shoulder towards her outstretched arm and nimble fingers that are twisted into one of the many hand gestures, or kbach, that make up the traditional Cambodian dance, apsara.
Having survived the horrors of growing up under the Khmer Rouge – at the age of seven, Pol Pot’s soldiers ordered her family out of their home in the capital to carry out hard labour in the countryside – Shapiro’s only escape from the atrocities that haunted her was to the safety of her secret world of dance. “When I danced I felt all the joys it brought with it. I could forget myself and the life I was living in. Dance was something beautiful in my miserable life,” says the internationally esteemed dancer and choreographer.
After moving back to her home city of Phnom Penh in the wake of the war, Shapiro became one of the first generation of dancers to enroll in the re-opened Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in 1981. Many artists had perished under the ultra-communist regime and Shapiro, 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 Shapiro, 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.”
In 1988, Shapiro graduated and continued teaching at the university. It was there that she met John Shapiro, an assistant director in Hollywood who was visiting his sister while she researched a PhD in Cambodia. They fell in love, and the couple moved to California in 1991. Shapiro seized every opportunity to expand her skills, enrolling in dance ethnology at UCLA and taking studio classes in genres such as classical Indian, ballet, Japanese, Korean and African dance.
However, racked with guilt for having left Cambodia, Shapiro felt it her duty to keep the tradition of apsara alive and went onto launch Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, California. The school was dedicated to fostering traditional arts within the town’s large population of Cambodian refugees. She secured a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to adapt William Shakespeare’s Othello – a tragedy that had captivated her when she read it at university.
In 1999, she returned to her motherland to recruit the help of her former colleagues. Less than a year later, American production manager Fred Frumberg asked her to help produce the premier of Samritechak, a classical Cambodian dance interpretation of the age-old play. In 2000, the concertlength dance drama made its premier at RUFA’s theatre, and went on to cement Shapiro’s name on the international choreography stage, appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, across America and at the Venice Biennale, where Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called it “an epiphany”.
Since the 2000 premiere, Shapiro has become Cambodia’s most accomplished choreographer, presenting her groundbreaking and challenging dances across four continents and, more importantly, at home to audiences hungry for living culture and young choreographers looking for inspiration.
In 2006, the Shapiros returned to Cambodia for good to set up the Khmer Arts Ensemble, renamed Sophiline Art Ensemble. They recruited 14 top graduates from Shapiro’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,” she 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 Shapiro, 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.
Shapiro’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. In 2012, to coincide with the premiere of A Bend in the River, she became a prestigious McKnight International Artist Fellow, receiving a grant to develop her work.
For now, her mission remains simple: to continue spreading the word about Cambodian culture both across the world and at home. “While it’s important Cambodians know about the arts, it’s amazing to also share our talents with the rest of the world,” she says. “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.”