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Othello in Khmer garb

A Long Beach-based choreographer returns to Cambodia to prepare 'Samritechak,' her unorthodox version of Shakespeare's tragedy.

January 26, 2003|Robert Turnbull | Special to The Times

Phnom Penh, Cambodia — A claustrophobic tale of male vanity, female innocence, suspicion and betrayal seen through a murky eye of racial prejudice, Shakespeare's "Othello" is so emotionally resonant, a Cambodian-born dancer-choreographer believes, that it transcends time and place.

"I was immediately struck by 'Othello's' relevance to Cambodia," says Sophiline Shapiro, the Long Beach-based artist whose dance version of Shakespeare's tragedy, "Samritechak" (literally, "dark prince") will be performed by 28 dancers and musicians at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach this week and next week at the Cerritos Center.

"I also felt the story had the potential to form an artistic bridge between East and West through the filter of the familiar," says Shapiro.

In her unorthodox interpretation, Shakespeare's Moorish protagonist is a woman playing half-man, half-giant. Desdemona appears as a shimmering princess swathed in gold, and Iago is a hyperactive monkey. There are no conventional deaths; characters in Cambodian theater cannot die on stage. The piece ends with Desdemona's metaphoric "resurrection" and Othello's pleas for punishment.

Accompanying Shapiro's troupe of classically trained dancers will be the traditional pinpeat ensemble of bamboo xylophone, gongs, cowhide drums and reeds as well as three vocalists who narrate the story and provide dialogue.

Might Shakespeare raise a quizzical eyebrow? Probably, but "Samritechak" isn't as radical as might first appear. Shapiro has simply shifted the action from 16th century Venice to an indeterminate time in courtly Cambodia, while following -- almost to the letter -- the centuries-old language and syntax of Cambodian classical dance, known as Robam Kbech Boran.

Those familiar with the genre will have no trouble recognizing the sinuous and graceful gestures and the complex, intricate hand and foot movements. Western audiences will find familiar archetypes -- wily sycophants, conspiring courtiers, imploding tyrants -- in the Khmer mythology from which it draws.

She found the essence of "Othello" in the ancient Ramayana, a sprawling epic and storytelling tradition popular across Asia. The Ramayana has its own tragic heroine in Sita, whose unjust rejection by her lover on grounds of infidelity clearly mirrors Desdemona's fate.

"Both women become victims of men's folly and the most pathetic of human male foibles: jealousy," Shapiro asserts. "Yet they retain their dignity to the end and never lose the sense of compassion for their tormentors. They would prefer to die rather than have their integrity questioned by the men they love."

Bicultural bent

Shapiro is keenly tuned to the nuances of both cultures. Born Sophiline Cheam in Phnom Penh, she started dancing at age 12 and is among the first generation of classical dancers to graduate from Phnom Penh's Royal University of Fine Arts after the Khmer Rouge engineered the demise of almost 80% of Cambodia's dancers.

In 1991, she settled in Los Angeles with her husband, writer John Shapiro and formedher own company, Dance Celeste. She went on to teach dance at UCLA in 1997. Since moving to Long Beach in 2000, she has launched the Khmer Arts Academy, an organization devoted to preserving, performing and promoting traditional Cambodian performing arts within the country's largest Cambodian American community and abroad.

"Samritechak" was conceived in 1995 while Shapiro was studying literature at Santa Monica College. A grant of $30,000 from the Irvine Foundation enabled her to make a full translation and root out unused traditional songs to accompany the choreography. The result is the first "new" ballet in a traditional vein since the 1960s, and the first East-West hybrid of its type.

It began as a lonely challenge. "Taking quite difficult dialogue and translating it into movement wasn't easy," Shapiro says. "I tried to visualize the emotions of each scene and make it acceptable to Cambodians." Her uncle, Cheng Phon, a former minister of culture, was among those who disapproved. "To him, both Shakespeare and Cambodian classical dance were already inviolate. Who was I to play around with them?"

For such an ambitious undertaking, the choice of dancers was crucial. She staged the production for the first time at Phnom Penh's Royal University in 2000, approaching some of its elderly "masters," the survivors of Cambodia's "killing fields," and now revered as living treasures by the country's arts community.

"My initial feeling was that only the older dancers would have the gravitas for these roles," she says. Samritechak was taken by Soth Somaly, a former palace dancer and formidable interpreter of the giant role or yaak. All performances were sold out. Audience members were amazed that someone could take a foreign story and turn it into Cambodian classical dance.

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