Khmer Arts Ensemble brings Cambodian dance to the Twin Cities

Khmer Arts Ensemble brings Cambodian dance to the Twin Cities
Photo by Tim Rummelhoff

Cambodian dance group Khmer Arts Ensemble is in town this weekend to present the Minnesota debut of their work "A Bend in the River," a piece exploring revenge through contemporary Cambodian dance, puppets, and music. The performance on Friday features a preview at Solera Restaurant with Black Label Movement's Carl Flink and Emilie Plauché Flink, and today at 4 p.m. there will be a public conversation between Khmer's Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who's a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, and Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy at the Nolte Center for Continuing Education. 

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro
Photo by Tim Rummelhoff

Born in 1967 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was evacuated from the city where she was born by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Civil War, where she lost her father and two brothers and saw the whole country devastated. Not allowed to attend school, Shapiro worked in the fields as a farmer until she was 14 years old, when she was able to finally learn the art of Cambodian classical dance. 

The surviving generation of artists -- her teachers, as well as the students from her own generation -- had been deprived of the cultural traditions for so many years that they were passionately bent on passing down the teachings. Of course, the conditions in which she learned were poor due to the war's destruction, but her teachers revived the spirit of the culture and "inspired me to participate," she says.  

In 1990, Shapiro choreographed a Cambodian dance adaptation of Othello, where Othello, after he kills Desdemona, not only asks her forgiveness, but asks to be punished, in order to "make his mistakes accountable," Shapiro says.  A political piece that used the Shakespearian story as a metaphor for the Khmer Rouge, it aimed to hold the perpetrators accountable, and point to their never taking any responsibility.  

In a presentation this weekend, Shapiro and the Khmer Arts Ensemble use storytelling as metaphor for a political statement in "A Bend in the River," which draws from a folktale about a crocodile/woman who is killed in a past life, and vows revenge in the next, only to find she's fallen in love with the crocodile/man whom she has vowed to kill. Shapiro says she wanted to address the theme of revenge, and how an alternative to destroying a country can be to build it up again. 

Shapiro characterizes her choreographic style as "contemporary Cambodian dance," wherein the hand gestures and postures are the same as in the classical style -- turned-in toes, arching back, hyper extending arms -- but the way she brings the movement together is formed in a new way. 

For example, at a master class at the University of Minnesota this week, the dancers from Khmer Arts demonstrated a dance in which they merged postures, at times entwining their bodies into one another, which Shapiro says wouldn't be seen in a classical rendition of the form. 

Still, to be able to move their bodies the way they do, you can see the years of technique in the classical style that the dancers have. Their fingers elongate almost unbelievably, bending backwards in unfathomable curves. The hand gestures remind one of an Indian style of dance, but the footwork is entirely different. There's no heavy leg movement or stomping, but rather a very slow, graceful way of moving the feet which Shapiro likens to Japanese forms. 


"A Bend in the River"
8 p.m. Friday
State Theater
There will be a preview discussion before with Carl Flink and Emilie Plauché Flink at Solera from 6:45-7:30 p.m.
4 p.m. Thursday (today) there will be a free conversation between Shapiro and Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (of Ragamala) at the Nolte Center for Continuing Education. 
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Historic State Theatre

805 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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