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 dances of the first half of my choreographic career have been noted for infusing the venerable classical form with new energy and ideas. For one thing, they explore challenging themes and cast a critical eye on contemporary society. At the time of their creation, they broke new ground formally through innovative floor patterning, transitions and musical arrangements. But while I was looking toward the future in these areas, I was looking towards the past when it came to costuming. I was among the first generation of dancers to be trained in and perform classical dance after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. When I entered the newly reopened School of Fine Arts in 1981, Cambodia was a desperately poor and isolated country. We did our best with what materials were cheap and available. So, when I began choreographing new dances in 1999 and had some resources at my disposal, I was eager to commission costumes of a quality that attempted to match those of Cambodia’s “golden era” of the 1960s. The costumes you see on display here are designed in the “Chaktomuk” style, which has dominated classical dance for more than 100 years. They were made by some of Cambodia’s finest artisans and are as exquisite as you’re likely to see. Among them, the sole innovation is Neang Neak’s sash, which, in mimicking a serpent’s tail, doubles the length of one belonging to a traditional female character.
Since 2008, costumes for my new dances have become increasingly interpretive. But that doesn’t diminish my love for and admiration of beautifully crafted “Chaktomuk” regalia. Classical dance is an amalgam of multiple contributions, including choreography, musical composition and design. In this exhibition, I wish to highlight one of these, costuming, which helps to give the dance the unique qualities that distinguish it as an art form.
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s groundbreaking choreography is distinguished by its impeccable technique, its collaborations across disciplines, and its capacity to expand the Cambodian classical vocabulary and realize new works. She has set her original dances on Cambodia’s finest performing artists and toured them to major stages on four continents. Notable venues include Amsterdam’s Muziektheater, Cambodia’s Les Nuits d’Angkor Festival, Beijing’s China Conservatory, Los Angeles’s Disney Concert Hall, the Hong Kong Arts Festival, New York’s Joyce Theater, Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace Theater and the Venice Biennale. Her commissions include those from the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process Series, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival.
Recent works include Stained for Fire! Fire! Fire! — a triple bill with choreographers Pichet Klunchun (Thailand) and Eko Supriyanto (Indonesia) that was performed throughout Southeast Asia in 2013, and A Bend in the River, a collaboration with sculptor Pich Sopheap and composer Him Sophy, which toured the USA in 2013 and had its Cambodian premiere at Chaktomuk Hall in 2014.
Sophiline’s lifetime achievement awards include National Heritage and USA Knight Fellowships (USA) as well as the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture (Japan). Other recognition includes Creative Capital, Durfee, Guggenheim, Irvine Dance and McKnight International Fellowships.
Her essays have been published in Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (Yale, 1997), Dance, Human Rights and Social Justice: Dignity in Motion (Scarecrow, 2008), Cultural Identities: Bombay to Tokyo (Centre national de la danse, 2009), Beyond the Apsara: Celebrating Dance in Cambodia (Routledge, 2009) and elsewhere.
Born in Phnom Penh three years before the onset of civil war, Sophiline was a member of the first gen-eration to enroll in and to graduate from the capital’s School of Fine Arts after the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and was a mem¬ber of the faculty there from 1988 to 1991. She studied all three major roles for women (neang, nearong and yeak), which is rare. With the school’s ensemble, she toured India, the Soviet Union, the USA and Vietnam. She moved to Southern Califor¬nia in 1991 where she studied dance eth¬nology at UCLA. She now teaches and lectures internationally. She is Co-Founder and Artis¬tic Director of Khmer Arts, a transnational performing arts organization dual-based in Long Beach, California, and Takhmao, Cambodia, and the parent organization of Sophiline Arts Ensemble, a 22-member professional dance and music troupe.