Cheam Shapiro tells FRONTLINE/World how classical dance helped
her understand and communicate her experience under the Khmer
Rouge. This interview has been edited for clarity.
were 8 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh and
took power in Cambodia. Did you understand what was happening
at the time?
I knew that something scary and dangerous and confused was coming.
But I didn't really know much. You know, the moment I left my
home and on my way to the countryside, it was like, wow, it
was hard because I was pushing a cart full of our possessions
across a bridge, uphill and downhill. It was hard, but there
was at least some sense of excitement -- you know, you get out
of your home, you get to go to somewhere.
But then things become difficult and scary when you see the
Khmer Rouge truck drive through the crowd with guns, and things
like that, and screaming and yelling at people about moving
faster. That was really scary.
the Khmer Rouge you and other children were taught songs. What
do you remember about these songs?
Well, these songs gave me, as a child, a delusion ... about
having a prosperous Cambodia. And even though I was walking
to work or from work with an empty stomach and crying and hungry,
I was singing that song. And the reason I sang that song is
that I couldn't sing any other. That's the only song I was allowed
to sing ... . Any other song, including traditional and pop songs
from before 1975, was not allowed.
And so this was a moment that we were forced to forget the past.
To disassociate ourselves from the past, from history. It was
only about this new history, about everyday survival ...
Singing a song was something that gave me some kind of spiritual
energy to keep going ...
the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, how did classical dance help
you to address the trauma of what you and others had experienced
during their rule?
Every time I think about the tragic (events) that happened to
me, to my family and to my people during the Khmer Rouge, I
have to think also about something that is beautiful about my
culture and about my country. And one thing that is beautiful
is the dance and music.
became a classical dance apprentice when you were 14. Can you
describe the classical dance you studied?
Technically and asthetically, Cambodian dance has very slow
and stylized movements that use hand gestures to communicate
and to translate the lyrics to the audience ...
It functions as a medium that connects Earth to heaven.
Very intricate hand gestures express belief -- when you put
your hand flat or all your four fingers together and then you
tuck your thumb to the front and that is belief. If you put
your finger into a point, a pointing gesture, that represents
a tree, and when the tree grows up, it has leaves. And then
if you put your thumb and your index finger together and then
spread the other three finger apart, that is the flower. So
the tree has the flower. And then, fruit: When you put your
thumb and the middle finger and form a circle and then you put
the three other finger backward, the tree has fruit. And when
the fruit get ripe it drops, and when it drops the seed just
falls into the ground and grows up as a tree again. So these
are just the four basic hand gestures that embody the meaning
of the circle of nature, the circle of life. And that's the
theme that classical dance usually focuses on.
me about the costume you wear when performing classical Cambodian
The costume that we wear is very elaborate. It's decorated with
sequins and beads and arranged in a very unique pattern to Cambodia.
We use silk skirts which have very beautiful patterns, and we
also wear headressess ... we wear (costumes) and gold-painted
jewelry to transform the dancer into the divine being ... .
This is how we connect the earth and heaven, by transforming
the dancer into the divine being, and the divine being descends
from heaven to bless the earth with peace and prosperity.
1990, you did Samritechak ("dark prince"), your Cambodian
classical dance adaptation of Othello. Can you comment
on the metaphors and symbolism you use to allude to the Khmer
Rouge in your dance performance of Samritechak?
Well, I felt very upset or angry that nowadays no one among
the Khmer Rouge leadership admits that they did anything to
Cambodia. They never take any responsibility. And so I made
Othello take responsibility ... . Of course, it's too late, but
at least he express guilt and takes responsibility for his actions,
for the fact that he killed an innocent wife. He is guilty.
was the audience's reaction to seeing your version of Othello
for the first time?
The audience was very supportive ... many of them said they were
impressed that I produced some new work that brought the two
cultures together ... but some of the audience was kind of confused.
They didn't really get the story line.
you're onstage, performing classical Cambodian dance, what thoughts
go through your mind?
Classical dance is like a moving meditation. When I dance, I
usually focus on ... generating feelings of compassion and meditation.
I do forget about things around me. ... I feel very calm, very
giving and very detached. I'm not desiring to go anywhere, to
get anything ... I feel compassion and calm, and emptiness.
But emptiness, in this case, is also to feel full, complete.
to Sophiline Shapiro introduction
courtesy of Michael Burr and James Wasserman