Sophiline Cheam Shapiro is an exceptional dancer, vocalist, teacher, and award-winning choreographer in the Cambodian classical dance form. A master artist of the 1,000-year-old tradition, Shapiro was a member of the first generation to graduate from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. She was also a member of the school’s classical dance faculty when they performed throughout India, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and the U.S. After coming to the United States in 1991, Shapiro created training workshops in classical dance and music throughout Southern California for hundreds of young people living in the region's large Cambodian refugee community. In 2002, she co-founded the Khmer Arts Academy, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering the vitality of Cambodian arts and culture. She is the only U.S.-based choreographer of Cambodian dance who develops major dances that tour internationally. Her groundbreaking choreography includes Samritechak (2000), a concert-length classical dance adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello, The Glass Box (2002), Seasons of Migration (2005), Pamina Devi (2006), and recent commissions from the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process Series (2008). Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields (1997), Dance, Human Rights & Social Justice: Dignity in Motion (2008), and Dances and Identities, from Bombay to Tokyo (2009). Her awards and honors include Guggenheim and Irvine Dance Fellowships as well as the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture. Her recent work in Cambodia has helped restore classical dance to the once exalted place it held before the Khmer Rouge holocaust. As one of her supporters points out, her life story reminds us that "even in the darkest depths of human tragedy, the spark of art creates a ray of hope that can blossom into bright and glorious triumph."
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro (right) teaching dancer Pum Molyta. Photo by James Wasserman
NEA: I would like to begin by asking about your response when you found out that you received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship?
Sophiline Shapiro: I was speechless. I was really speechless. I was so honored. I thought that the time had come earlier than I expected, because I know that I’m probably one of the youngest persons to receive this award. And it’s a high honor for me. It confirmed that hard work will pay off in the end with recognition.
NEA: Could you describe classical Cambodian dance for us?
Sophiline Shapiro: Cambodian classical dance is a stylized dance that is more than 1,000 years old now, and it's derived from the tradition of Hinduism. During the period of Angkor, Cambodian classical dance was developed and performed as part of a temple ritual. And so the dance movements, it's very stylized. It's derived from nature, from real life. [It is with the] hand gestures that the dancers communicate with each other as well as communicate with the audience. And so these movements in more like an S shape, moves in a circular way, like the serpent. The hand that is placed at the eye level and then goes down to the curved arm and then go to the other arms with the hyper-extended elbows and the curve of the other hand, you could see that it's a shape of a serpent from the head to the tail.
NEA: What drew you to this artform?
Sophiline Shapiro: I started my training in 1981. In 1981, to put it in the history of Cambodia, that was a year after the Khmer Rouge regime was [overthrown]. And so this is when my family and many millions of Cambodians traveled back to Cambodia, back to wherever they came from. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, they dispersed people who lived in the city, the urban people, throughout the countryside. Me, my family, and our neighbors -- you know, millions of people in the city -- were forced to leave their homes to go to the countryside and build irrigation systems, plant rice, build dams. So we engaged in agricultural productivity. Many people died at that period through overwork, starvation, disease, and execution. And so 1979, when the regime was overthrown, me and other people came back to the city because that's where we came from.
I lost my dad and my two brothers during the Khmer Rouge. When we came back, fortunately, I met my uncle, who was one of the most important artists and scholars and administrators in Cambodia, and he was engaged with the rebuilding of Cambodian arts and culture at that time. And so, seeing him working with the artists from different parts of Cambodia, I [was] exposed to the performing arts. I had seen many performances of Cambodian classical dance, folk dance, traditional theater, and, as a result, I learned many songs just by watching rehearsals and performances and learned many melodies and also some of the dances. And so, when [my uncle] moved to Phnom Penh and helped establish the reopening of the School of Fine Arts, I and my family moved with him to the capital city.
At the time, there was no electricity. We were lucky we had electricity from six to nine p.m. but, otherwise -- most of the time -- the whole city was dark. After dinner, there's nothing else to do, so I started to sing, just to sing the songs that I learned from the other places that I was. And so, [my uncle] heard me singing and so he said, "Well, you have beautiful voice so why don't you enroll in a theater school?" And I told him that I'm interested in dance more than theater. He convinced me to go to the theater school because he thought that as an actor you could act until you're old, but, as a dancer, your career's over when you are 35 or 40. So I followed him the next day to the School of Fine Arts. I passed the exams and so I started at the theater school. At the time, my fascination with performing arts was [with] classical dance, because the dance form is so graceful and elevated and, in many ways, very majestic. I thought that it was the opposite of my real life. [At that time,] Cambodia was completely devastated. We didn't have a house to live in so we moved in with my uncle. The house that I grew up in burned to the ground, so we didn't have a place to return to. Everybody was just desperate, you know? But everybody was working day and night to rebuild Cambodian culture.
By 1982, I switched from the theater school to the dance school. From 6:30 in the morning to 11, I learned technique, dance techniques. And then from two to five, I learned general education, like math and history. And then, after dinner, I went to my teacher's home and practiced with her, had a personal training with her, and then got up early, at 5:30, to come back to school. And so this was a daily routine for me and it kept me focused and, at the same time, engaged in something that was elevating my real life and everything I saw around me.
Dance gives me a sense of pride: with so much suffering and so much devastation and hopelessness, dance was something beautiful, something that transformed my miserable life. I saw my teachers and my uncle working day and night to rebuild Cambodian culture after the devastation, and I was taught my learning was an opportunity for me to participate in that rebuilding of the culture.
NEA: Were there many other people who took the same path as you? Were there other dancers?
Sophiline Shapiro: Yes. At that time, in 1981, there were 111 students in the dance school. The dance school was composed of classical dance, folk dance, and mass dance. And we were children: we were so hungry for education and structure because it was quite different from earlier. Between 1975 and 1979, at eight or nine years old kids [you were] supposed to work in the field. My first responsibility was to collect cow dung to make fertilizer and to collect another type of plant, chop them up, dry them, mix them together, and then bring it to the field. Once that responsibility was done, I'm working like the adults, cleaning up the rice patty, planting, harvesting, building the rice field divider, whatever work that needed to be done.
NEA: And then, at a certain point, you came to the United States. Could you tell us a little bit about how that happened?
Sophiline Shapiro: I graduated from high school as part of the dance school, a dance student. I graduated in 1988 and then I start teaching at the dance school for three years after that. In 1999 I met an American anthropologist, Annie Shapiro, and she came to Cambodia to do research on Cambodian dance. Cambodian arts in general and specifically in dance. In August 1999, her brother came, John Shapiro, my husband. We met in Cambodia but we were just friends, and then in September I came to the U.S. to participate as part of a dance company from the school in the Los Angeles festival. So I came with 32 people in the group, and I saw John again. After that, we toured the United States, and I saw him again, and by that time, he asked me to marry him. And so I said, “Well, if you want to marry me, go to Cambodia and ask my mother.” Six months later, he showed up and we got married and I moved back to California.
NEA: And when you came to California, did you find a Cambodian community there? Were you able to continue your work as a dancer and a choreographer?
Sophiline Shapiro: The first person who put me in touch with the Cambodian community and the dance troupe that exists there was Amy Kaplan, who is an ethno-musicologist and was teaching at UCLA. I met her on the tour, when I was performing for the L.A. festival at UCLA. And so she introduced me to a dance troupe in Van Nuys, which is in north Hollywood, and I taught there a few years. In '93, I stopped teaching there and I start teaching at a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, in Echo Park, which is closer to where I lived at that time. And [I met] a former Cambodian artist, who I knew. When she was in Cambodia, she was teaching at the fine arts school as well and she moved to Long Beach, California. And so she knew that I was there and so she was conducting health and arts activities combined together for children. She asked me to come and teach classical dance in Long Beach and that was my first time teaching in Long Beach. Eventually, I moved to Long Beach in 2000, after I graduated from UCLA, and started working in the Cambodian community to direct an art program as part of that organization.
I just like teaching because I thought that it was important to keep focused and engaged with Cambodian classical dance. And then, in 2002, John and I decided to establish the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach. In 2006, we established another center in Cambodia, which is where I'm working at the moment. The reason I kept teaching is that, as soon as I got to California, I went to study English at the adult school and then I took some classes at the community college and, when I went to school, I realized that I'm wearing jeans now; I didn't wear skirt any more. And my husband is an American so we speak English at home. He doesn't speak any Cambodian. And we listen to NPR and other things and don’t listen to any Cambodian music. So I realized that I was beginning to lose my sense of Cambodian-ness. And so, in order for me to keep myself connected to my sense of identity, of cultural identity, I start putting on my practice costume and practiced in my backyard and my living room. That was something to help me to connect to the Cambodians, to reestablish my sense of Cambodian-ness and to connect me to Cambodian roots. And, for that reason, maybe it's also a good thing that I can help other Cambodian Americans [to reconnect with their Cambodian culture] by teaching Cambodian classical dance in the community.
NEA: When you returned to Cambodia, to establish a school there, what did you find? Was there a big change from the time that you left, and were young people still interested in the dance?
Sophiline Shapiro: Yes. Many people were interested in learning Cambodian classical dance. I think that establishing our company in Cambodia is a way that we could contribute to the preservation of Cambodian dance. There, of course, for me, there are many ways of preserving Cambodian dance. One is through master apprenticeships. Two is through documentation. And three is through the expansion of the repertoire itself. We used to have 50 dances; now we have 70 or 100 and the repertoire should expand. But, of course, the new work that's being created by the people at this present time reflects the issues and the concerns of life at the time that the dance is created. We have about 30 artists who work with us, both musicians and dancers. They're all professionals.
NEA: What was your first new dance?
Sophiline Shapiro: My first work was the adaptation of Othello. It's called Samritechak. I actually learned about Othello when I went to Santa Monica college in Los Angeles to study English as critical thinking. You know that Othello is a very masculine play and it deals with issues of race, racism and prejudices, interracial marriage and all of that. I find these issues relevant to my life. Two more things that attracted it to me were death and honor of life. I see that in Othello, as well as in other Cambodian mythologies [where] female characters seem to [become a] victim of male foolishness. And their lack of respect for each other; that's, of course, the problem that tears both of them apart. After Othello realized the truth that Desdemona loved him and she didn't do anything wrong, he went to her body and asked for punishment instead of forgiveness. He didn't listen to Desdemona, and, as a result, his decision and his actions affect her life and the lives of the people around him. And, therefore, he has to take the accountability and responsibility for that.