NEA Arts Magazine

Living in the Past, Present, & Future

A Conversation with Pandit Chitresh Das and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro

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Jason Samuels Smith on stage trying out a step while Pandit Chitresh Das look on approvingly

Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith perform India Jazz Suites. Photo by Marty Sohl.

As choreographers/dancers in the traditional arts, Pandit Chitresh Das and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro have feet in the past as well as the future. Both lead dance companies in their respective cultures, and both work in their native countries as well as in the U.S., where they are now based. Shapiro revives the 1,000- year-old tradition that was nearly destroyed when the despotic Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in the 1970s, yet adapts Cambodian dance to Shakespeare's Othello and Mozart's The Magic Flute. Das performs the Kathak dance that originated in northern India and achieved its greatest heights in the 15th-16th centuries, but also has collaborated and toured with Jason Samuels Smith, an African-American tap dancer. In 2002, Shapiro co-founded (with her husband John Shapiro) the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, California, which fosters the vitality of Cambodian arts and culture, and works in Cambodia to reestablish classical dance to its once exalted place in the country. In 1980, Das founded his own dance company and school in San Francisco, California, dedicated to the preservation and education of Kathak dance and Indian culture. In addition, Das regularly returns to Kolkata (Calcutta) to teach dance in the red-light and lower income districts.

In July 2009, Folk and Traditional Arts Director Barry Bergey and Audio Producer Josephine Reed interviewed Shapiro and Das -- both 2009 NEA National Heritage Fellows -- while they were performing and teaching in their respective homelands of Cambodia and India. An excerpt of the nearly two-hour discussion is below.

NEA: I'd like both of you, if you don't mind, to talk about bringing very specific and very traditional dance culture to the larger United States.

SOPHALINE SHAPIRO: There's two types of work that I present. At the earlier end of my teaching career, when I got to the U.S., a lot of the works . . . were traditional pieces, and so I performed as part of festivals in Los Angeles or in other places. I saw my role as a cultural bridge at that time, between Cambodian culture and non-Cambodian culture.

Sophaline Shapiro in traditional cambodian costume performing   Pandit Chitresh Das in traditional cambodian costume performing

Left: Sophiline Cheam Shapiro in performance. Photo by Michael Burr. On the right, Pandit Chitresh Das performing at the 2008 American Folk Festival in Bangor, Maine. Photo by Kevin Bennett.

And then, later on, since 1999, that was when I started to choreograph and Othello was my first major adaptation [Samritechak], a full-length dance drama dealing with issues of leadership and women, and then Seasons of Migration, an attempt to deal with the issue -- which, you know, immigrants or anybody who travels from place to place experiences. And there are four types of culture shock: euphoria, rejection, adjustment, and equilibrium. And so I created four dances, each of them about ten minutes long, to address different stages of culture shock.

Another production, which was commissioned by Peter Sellars, was Pamina Devi, an adaptation of The Magic Flute, Mozart's opera. What drew me the most [to the adaptation] was the conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. It was a conflict of ideology, it was gender conflict, and they took it to an extreme approach. And these extreme approaches were something to remind me or help me understand what happened during the Khmer Rouge. They had these ideas of making Cambodia into a prosperous country; they didn't really step up and say, "Oh, we did something wrong so maybe we should change our course." They didn't. So that was a reminder that I find relevant in the conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. They couldn't see anything positive. And that's not productive to our society.

CHITRESH DAS: I was brought to the United States by the University of Maryland dance department. In September 1970, I came to California. Now, I was surrounded by almost all the greatest Indian classical musicians [at the Ali Akbar College of Music]. So we were living in a little India there, and we had the kind of audience who are very open to having performances. Now, you have to understand a usual concert of classical Kathak dance right now in India is the same way I dance in America: minimum two hours. No changing of costumes. You sing, you dance, you act, and now you have added Kathak yoga. So you are dancing between two to two-and-a-half hours straight, and with a very fast tabla player, and, you know, anything can go. Lots of improvisation. So then Michael Alexander, who represented AMAN dance company [AMAN Folk Ensemble], asked me to dance for AMAN. He said, "We invite you, but you have to dance 12 minutes." And I said, "What? Twelve minutes?" And that was my first understanding of how to make a three-hour dance into 12 minutes. It was one of the most challenging feats I had to go through, and also to psychologically accept, because either I had a chance to do it or not. That helped me tremendously [in] how to approach the New World.

Sophiline Shapiro guiding a young dance student

2009 NEA National Heritage Fellow Sophiline Cheam Shapiro teaching dancer Pum Molyta the art of Cambodian dance. Photo by James Wasserman

NEA: What is the difference between performing or teaching here in the United States, and then going back and performing and teaching in your respective home country?

SHAPIRO: The similarity of teaching in Cambodia and in America is that I look at the teaching as if I was taking care of a small tree, and that the tree has to be trimmed, carefully, from the bottom to the top. And this takes a long time, and lots of patience, and persistence. So that's a core approach that I take, whether I teach in the U.S. or in Cambodia. However, the result is different. In the U.S., I find that many of my students take dance as a second priority. Their first priority going to school is to get an education, have a future.

But they come to my class to take dance as an art appreciation class. And so very few dancers will stay for more than three years. In Cambodia, I'm establishing a professional dance company, so the artists that work with me are already well trained, and they get more advanced training (particularly to do the work that I choreograph, which requires a little different way of moving). So in this case, we are making art instead of seeing our class as art appreciation.

The similarity [in teaching in the U.S. and Cambodia] is that I do a lot of explanation: explaining the background of the dance, the purpose, the meaning of gestures, and all those kinds of things. I do both in the U.S. and in Cambodia. For performing, I do the same thing as well, both in the U.S. and in Cambodia. I like to do a pre-concert lecture, a performance, and then a Q&A afterward. And I find that this structure works, and it's very helpful to audiences in Cambodia, as well in the U.S.

DAS: Yes. I agree very much with Mrs. Shapiro. And the performance talk actually goes along with the word "Kathak" [which means "storytelling" in Sanskrit], because people would tell the story and then dance in India. And I think the same as it probably was in Cambodia. I don't know, but maybe.

In India when I'm dancing an episode from the Ramayana, I will just tell them, "I am doing this episode." That's it. Whereas in America, you have to explain the whole thing. But if you tell a little story and you dance, people enjoy it much more in America.

NEA: I wondered whether or not either of you might have a comment or question for the other. I'd love to hear you speak to one another about anything you'd like, or something that might have come up as we were talking.

SHAPIRO: I would like to ask Pandit Das about his creative work, and what your inspiration is to create your work?

DAS: Wonderful question. I will see some athletes, tremendous in their speed, and how they take the turns on ice skating. I'm very open with that kind of a thing. The most important thing that [I ask myself is,] "What they are doing in a different style, can I do in Kathak?" Can I bring the intensity, for instance, of a soccer player, how they run, how they move. Or animals, how they move in nature. All these things help me tremendously, and I feel, "Okay, how can I do this? How can I express mysel f like, you know, how beautifully they are doing it?"

And always there's women's power. I have an all-female company, and there's a Ramayana they're going to be doing in September. For the first time, I won't be there. All the roles will be done by the women. So that also inspires me: how can women do the role of the male? It fascinates me.

NEA: Sophiline, it was your question, but how about you and your inspiration?

SHAPIRO: My inspiration usually derives from questions for which I have searched for answers for a long time, whether the questions relate to the past, to the Khmer Rouge, to the everyday life, or the way we behave today.

It is an honor to be born into a culture that is as old and as rich as Cambodian culture, but at the same time, it's also that women are trapped or being imprisoned by the conventional expectation of women as well. And I say this not out of criticism or out of hate, but to say this out of love, and out of trying to understand and to fill out the gap of misunderstanding of the culture itself. These are the issues that I work with. I like to think about the past, present, and the future. This is a question I try to answer: what do Cambodian people or Cambodian Americans experience right now in terms of changing of identity and things like that? Are we really moving into the future? The Cambodian identity is composed by many things, but mainly is composed by the legacy of Angkor and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. If the legacy of Angkor symbolizes our cultural pride, and then we reject the Khmer Rouge experience of suffering and destruction. . . we can't take one or leave another. Both have to come together, and we have to figure out how to accept the two. By creating something positive in the present that would help us to see a better future, that would be something we will leave behind as part of the history that we could be proud of.