Cambodian dance ensemble brings latest production to Hopkins Center for the Arts this month

Aside from preserving an ancient art form, Khmer Dance Ensemble's new production highlights the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 1980s.The Lives of Giants” is more than a stage showcase of Cambodia classical dance styles.

It is a timely spotlight on decades-old atrocities, and the alleged perpetrators now facing a United Nations-backed court.

In the wake of reports last week that four Kymer Rouge leaders were formally charged by a United Nations-back court in Cambodia on charges of genocide, war crimes, murder and crimes against humanity, the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College in Hanover will present the Khmer Arts Ensemble’s 20 dancers and musicians in two programs based on Hindu creation myth and themes of abuse of power.

“(The Sept. 16) New York Times reported on the indictments of four alleged formal Khmer Rouge officials, all in their 70s and 80s, an all-too-slight event in the longdelayed and blunted effort to bring leaders of this 1970s atrocity to justice,” said Rebecca Bailey, publicity coordinator for the Hopkins Center.

“This is precisely the sort of secrecy and reluctance to examine itself that Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has brought to light through her acclaimed work, particularly the newest piece, “The Lives of Giants,” which will be presented to Granite State audiences Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 28 and 29,” Bailey said.

Just eight when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, Cheam Shapiro spent four years in a forced-labor camp.

During that time, Pol Pot’s brutal regime almost managed to wipe out centuries of Cambodian arts, she said. From 1975 to 1979, he led a genocide that nearly obliterated the intelligentsia, with the Khmer Rouge killing off an estimated 90 percent of the country’s artists, classical dancers included.

“After the regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, surviving dancers gathered to try to rebuild what had been an oral tradition, passed from teacher to student, over hundreds of years,” Bailey said. “When the Royal University of Fine Arts reopened in the 1980s, Cheam Shapiro became a member of its first graduating class. She was a member of the dance faculty there from 1988 to 1991, when she immigrated to the United States.”

Settling in Long Beach, Calif., home to the largest Cambodian community outside of Southeast Asia, she began teaching dance and established what in 2002 became the KAE, now based in both Long Beach and Takhmao, Cambodia, just outside Phnom Penh. The ensemble is part of a larger organization, Khmer Arts, devoted to training a new generation in the ancient art form.

Since then Cheam Shapiro has emerged as an internationally recognized choreographer, fusing Cambodian classical dance with other traditions while remaining true to the idiom’s fine technique and transcendent beauty. These projects include “Shir Ha Shirim,” a 2008 collaboration with American avant-garde composer John Zorn based on the Old Testament’s Song of Songs; “Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute,” commissioned by opera director and international impresario Peter Sellars for a 250th Mozart birthday celebration in 2006 in Vienna; and the 2005 “Seasons of Migrations.”

“The Lives of Giants” draws on a story from Reamker — the Cambodian version of the ancient Hindu epic “The Ramayana” — involving imperfect gods, mischievous angels and a giant who abuses his god-given powers.

The performances are part of a three-day residency that includes a workshop on classical Cambodian dance and a panel discussion on artists across the globe who address contemporary issues through their work. Both events are open to the public.

Cambodian classical dance brings together sculptural movement, shimmering costumes and ancient stories.

It is always performed to live accompaniment, usually, the cascading rhythms and scales of the pin peat, the gamelan-like ensemble that accompanies Cambodian classical dance. The art form dates back to the Angkor Empire of the eighth to 13th centuries, a society that also left the treasured Angkor Wat temple complex, whose bas reliefs depict dancers in poses still seen in classical dance.

“‘The Lives of Giants’ is an allegorical look at cycles of violence within societies,” writes Cheam Shapiro in program notes for the performance. “Violence begets violence. The abused become the abusers. Within Cambodian society, state-led terror and genocide of the recent past has fed contemporary epidemics of domestic violence and human trafficking. Nevertheless, I believe compassion is an antidote. When we acknowledge our own and our enemies’ humanity, we create room to step away from inhumane behavior.”

True to the tradition of Cambodian classical dance, the Hanovers shows will be performed with live music, in this case by two singers and four instrumentalists on xylophone, gong, drums and a four-reed oboe-like instrument called the sralai.

“The musicians and dancers follow each other,” said Margaret Lawrence, Hopkins Center programming director. “It’s impossible to say who’s following whom. The musicians are both giving fresh impulses to the dancers and are following them closely. When you see Cambodian classical dance, you’re entering a space where the musicians are playing as much for you as for the dancers.”

Tickets to “The Lives of Giants” at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover are $25-$37; $14-$16 for ages 18 and younger. For more information, call 646-2422 or log onto


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