Othello in Khmer garb

Special to The Times

A claustrophobic tale of male vanity, female innocence, suspicion and betrayal seen through a murky eye of racial prejudice, Shakespeare's "Othello" is so emotionally resonant, a Cambodian-born dancer-choreographer believes, that it transcends time and place.

"I was immediately struck by 'Othello's' relevance to Cambodia," says Sophiline Shapiro, the Long Beach-based artist whose dance version of Shakespeare's tragedy, "Samritechak" (literally, "dark prince") will be performed by 28 dancers and musicians at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach this week and next week at the Cerritos Center.

"I also felt the story had the potential to form an artistic bridge between East and West through the filter of the familiar," says Shapiro.

In her unorthodox interpretation, Shakespeare's Moorish protagonist is a woman playing half-man, half-giant. Desdemona appears as a shimmering princess swathed in gold, and Iago is a hyperactive monkey. There are no conventional deaths; characters in Cambodian theater cannot die on stage. The piece ends with Desdemona's metaphoric "resurrection" and Othello's pleas for punishment.

Accompanying Shapiro's troupe of classically trained dancers will be the traditional pinpeat ensemble of bamboo xylophone, gongs, cowhide drums and reeds as well as three vocalists who narrate the story and provide dialogue.

Might Shakespeare raise a quizzical eyebrow? Probably, but "Samritechak" isn't as radical as might first appear. Shapiro has simply shifted the action from 16th century Venice to an indeterminate time in courtly Cambodia, while following -- almost to the letter -- the centuries-old language and syntax of Cambodian classical dance, known as Robam Kbech Boran.

Those familiar with the genre will have no trouble recognizing the sinuous and graceful gestures and the complex, intricate hand and foot movements. Western audiences will find familiar archetypes -- wily sycophants, conspiring courtiers, imploding tyrants -- in the Khmer mythology from which it draws.

She found the essence of "Othello" in the ancient Ramayana, a sprawling epic and storytelling tradition popular across Asia. The Ramayana has its own tragic heroine in Sita, whose unjust rejection by her lover on grounds of infidelity clearly mirrors Desdemona's fate.

"Both women become victims of men's folly and the most pathetic of human male foibles: jealousy," Shapiro asserts. "Yet they retain their dignity to the end and never lose the sense of compassion for their tormentors. They would prefer to die rather than have their integrity questioned by the men they love."

Bicultural bent

Shapiro is keenly tuned to the nuances of both cultures. Born Sophiline Cheam in Phnom Penh, she started dancing at age 12 and is among the first generation of classical dancers to graduate from Phnom Penh's Royal University of Fine Arts after the Khmer Rouge engineered the demise of almost 80% of Cambodia's dancers.

In 1991, she settled in Los Angeles with her husband, writer John Shapiro and formedher own company, Dance Celeste. She went on to teach dance at UCLA in 1997. Since moving to Long Beach in 2000, she has launched the Khmer Arts Academy, an organization devoted to preserving, performing and promoting traditional Cambodian performing arts within the country's largest Cambodian American community and abroad.

"Samritechak" was conceived in 1995 while Shapiro was studying literature at Santa Monica College. A grant of $30,000 from the Irvine Foundation enabled her to make a full translation and root out unused traditional songs to accompany the choreography. The result is the first "new" ballet in a traditional vein since the 1960s, and the first East-West hybrid of its type.

It began as a lonely challenge. "Taking quite difficult dialogue and translating it into movement wasn't easy," Shapiro says. "I tried to visualize the emotions of each scene and make it acceptable to Cambodians." Her uncle, Cheng Phon, a former minister of culture, was among those who disapproved. "To him, both Shakespeare and Cambodian classical dance were already inviolate. Who was I to play around with them?"

For such an ambitious undertaking, the choice of dancers was crucial. She staged the production for the first time at Phnom Penh's Royal University in 2000, approaching some of its elderly "masters," the survivors of Cambodia's "killing fields," and now revered as living treasures by the country's arts community.

"My initial feeling was that only the older dancers would have the gravitas for these roles," she says. Samritechak was taken by Soth Somaly, a former palace dancer and formidable interpreter of the giant role or yaak. All performances were sold out. Audience members were amazed that someone could take a foreign story and turn it into Cambodian classical dance.

In Southern California, Shapiro will introduce dancers of the university's younger generation. Somaly passes the lead role to 21-year-old Khieu Sotheavy, while the roles of Romnea (Cassio), Mono (Rodrigo) and Romarin (the Duke of Cyprus) also change hands. Of the original cast, there is only Sam Sathya playing Khanitha Devi (Desdemona) and Pheng Sarannarith as Virul (Iago), Cambodia's latest monkey star. All possess the essential quality of poise and elegance known as Khnyong, according to Shapiro.

Tough taskmaster

In the cavernous, dimly lit dance hall of the Royal University of Fine Arts' north campus, daily rehearsals for "Samritechak" begin at 2 p.m. sharp, the hottest time of day. There's little talking. The dancers run through sections of the piece to the sounds of girls chanting and the dulcet, rhythmically insistent tones of musicians sitting cross-legged on a rattan mat.

Somaly is supervising the day's proceedings, along with an older colleague, Ros Kong. Shapiro watches from the wings as Somaly patiently transmits her role to her successor. The elder master takes great pains to reposition the young woman's shoulders, pull back the fingers, redirect the gaze.

" 'Samritechak' shares the same basic vocabulary as classical ballet, but the emotions can't really be taught," she says. "At first Sotheavy wasn't very sure of the plot line, so we began haltingly, in 'parrot fashion,' but seeing Orson Welles' movie version of 'Othello' helped her better understand the story."

While Somaly talks, Sotheavy nods obediently. One of the toughest taskmasters of her generation, Somaly may be prudent with praise and quick to defend ancestral standards, but she is well known for getting results. "Dancers should be like soldiers," she says resolutely. "They need discipline and strength." Alert to every gesture, Somaly prowls the stage wielding a long stick, which she sometimes slaps threateningly against the floor.

Complex dances made up of thousands of gestures have traditionally been handed down by word of mouth, an ephemeral and fragile system that has resulted in the extinction of a number of important dances during Cambodia's troubled history. "Mentorship programs," aimed at stemming such loss, are now supported by philanthropic bodies such as the Rockefeller Foundation. Each "draft" of "Samritechak" has been videotaped.

With "Samritechak," Shapiro is adding to the classical canon, but she repeatedly stresses the piece's contemporary credentials and relevance to Cambodia, a precarious and rapidly changing society still coming to terms with issues of violence, gender, race and class discrimination.

The white facial makeup "Samritechak" wears gives him an otherworldly quality, but Shapiro is also suggesting his racial exclusion and vulnerability within an Asian social context. Like 16th century Venice, Cambodia has rapidly opened up to outside influences and cultures; but the corollary is a deep division between progressive and conservative elements.

"During the Venetian empire, the aim was to divide and conquer," Shapiro says, "but just as with Othello, his society as a whole contained the seeds of its own destruction. Iago could easily find the chink in the armor and exploit the innocence of Desdemona."

Shapiro acknowledges that women in Cambodia may slowly be gaining ground politically, but they can easily become helpless victims of a culture in which crimes against them often seem to be committed with impunity.

Shapiro cites the murder of one of her closest friends, celebrity classical dancer, actress and singer Piseth Pilika. Pilika, who allegedly was involved in an affair with a prominent politician, was gunned down in broad daylight two years ago at a local market. The nation mourned Pilika much as Westerners had grieved Princess Diana -- but no one admitted to the crime and the investigation was said to be a joke. Shapiro created "Glass Box," a 10-minute solo classical dance out of this tragedy.

"Othello" too has its episodic violence, although in this version, it has largely been subsumed by stylization. A staged death was out of the question. "A man who has seen suffering, beauty and success, could never take his own life, at least not in the Khmer tradition," Shapiro says.

The result is a decidedly un-bloody denouement. Samritechak casts an elaborate, choreographically complex spell on Khanitha Devi and then, piqued by remorse, turns the black magic on himself. She then revives, taking center stage, but is seemingly oblivious to her assailant's dramatic pleas that he be punished. It's an ambiguous ending, a shift in focus from retribution to responsibility.

Samritechak is primarily an object of pity. "He doesn't deserve to be punished "because of his immense love for Khanitha Devi," Sotheavy says."He was weak and foolish, but at least he confessed his crimes, something many bad men in this country refused to do."

Sotheavy is alluding to a broader issue occupying the country: national reconciliation and forgiveness. Cambodia is still reeling from a holocaust whose perpetrators live openly in society and resist all invitations to show contrition.

"The people want to turn the page on the Khmer Rouge chapter," Shapiro says. "My hope is that those responsible will have the courage to follow Samritechak's example and admit their guilt, so that as a nation we can all move on."

*

'Samritechak'

Who: Royal University of Fine Arts

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.; Thursday, 7 p.m.

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

Price: $15-$25

Contact: (562) 985-7000

Also

When: Feb. 3, 8 p.m.

Where: Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos

Price: $30-$40

Contact: (800) 300-4345

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