Gods and Angels (here on earth)

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Gods and Angels is an exhibition of costumes from the early work of award-winning dancer/choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro.  Sophiline has always been a pioneer.  As a student she was amongst the first generation to enroll at the School of Fine Arts after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, where she studied the three major roles for female performers, a rare achievement. Later as a choreographer she found inspiration in Shakespeare, Mozart, traditional folklore and contemporary Cambodian art.  Her 33-year career spans the classical canon to newly created works that have toured around the world with recognition and commissions from well-known institutions.  Gods and Angels highlights, in particular, classical dance costumes she designed and commissioned in the traditional “Chaktomuk” style from 1999 to 2006.

What comes through in Sophiline’s work is her ability to see into the heart of a story and performance—to take that story and make it her own.  She masterfully weaves together her personal history with classical narratives and form.  The resulting work emerges as socially and culturally relevant.  She is thorough in her research, immersing herself in form, narrative, gesture and historical context.  That thoroughness plays out on stage with highly articulated movements, costumes and technical impeccability.  In some works, she flips traditional stories by taking minor characters and elevates them to the lead.   In others, she finds parallels in centuries-old literature with the recent history of her own country.

Gods and Angels focuses specifically on the costumes as an art form, the materiality and how each simultaneously embodies both ancient and recent history.  Costume making in Cambodia is a highly stylized craft that goes back centuries, passed from master to student but it is not offered formally through the art schools.  The craft has changed very little over the past century or so, with each piece sewn by hand.  It is believed that very early dance costumes had real gems sewn into the fabrics, while today’s costumes shine with glittering sequins and gold work adorning each piece.  Most of the costume pieces are made of silk, velvet or cotton and can take up to six months to make (for the most elaborate pieces).  Today, only a handful of master craftsmen can make costumes worthy of the venerable classical Cambodian dance, although lesser quality costumes abound.

For this exhibition a careful selection of costumes are featured—each one a milestone in Sophiline’s choreographic career.  One costume that is highlighted among others is that of the character Neang Neak, who plays out “rejection” in the four stages of culture shock and the four pillars of Sophiline’s Seasons of Migration.  The serpent goddess is seen here with an exceptionally long sbai, double the normal length.  This adaptation is part of Sophiline’s exploration of her own experiences displaced from her home culture. Neang Neak, like her choreographer, finds that she is different than others because of her long tail.  She tries to tear it off, but can’t.  At her lowest point of despair, she finds acceptance and eventually healthy self-love.   For the exhibition Neang Neak’s costume is presented in a suspended installation, resulting in an abstracted version of the original and referencing Sophiline’s more recent works and collaborations with contemporary artists and designers.  Across from the installation a monitor screens Neang Neak, a video by Studio Revolt and Sophiline’s own Khmer Arts that interprets the story through hand-crafted animation and site specific performances that bring Neang Neak distinctly into the 21st century.

The exhibition will run from December 3rd, 2014 to January 25th, 2014.  To further explore the personal and cultural narratives, a public program of artist talks and film screenings is offered.

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