Cambodian dance ensemble provides sky-high helipad performance

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: February 10, 2017 | Cambodia

On Thursday night, the Khmer Arts Academy offered an Apsara dance performance on top of Phnom Penh’s Canadia Tower

Apsara dancers
Photo: MJFang

On Thursday night in Phnom Penh, a performance of Cambodia’s famed Apsara dancing unfolded in the unlikeliest of places – a helipad situated at the very top of Phnom Penh’s Canadia Tower, 118 metres above the city.

The night’s main performance, orchestrated by famed Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, co-founder and artistic director of the Khmer Arts Academy, was entitled “Munkul Lokey”, or “Happiness of the World”. Commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process series in 2008, the performance combined classical Cambodian dance with a cappella music inspired by the Song of Songs, a biblical text celebrating sexual love.

As the 11 members of the Sophiline Arts Ensemble moved in unison across Canadia Tower’s helipad last night, mesmerising the audience with their dexterity and grace, the distant clamour of car horns and the whir of passing planes provided a surreal backdrop to the classical Khmer ballet.

The slow and sensual choreography, overlaid with a Hebrew monologue describing a story of love and intimacy, aimed to invoke themes of romance, spirituality and erotic passion.

Shapiro has become a matriarch of Cambodian arts following the Khmer Rouge era, a period that she endured as a young girl in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge was removed from power in 1979, Shapiro began training with the first group of dance students at the reopened Royal University of Fine Arts, later becoming a teacher there.

In 1991, after marrying an American, John Shapiro, who at the time was a Hollywood production manager, she moved to Long Beach, California and, along with her husband, founded the Khmer Arts Academy. The couple returned to Cambodia in 2003, opening a branch of the academy in the small city of Takhmao, just outside of Phnom Penh. Shapiro’s work, drawing from classic Angkorian dance, has been shown in such venues as the Dutch National Opera and Ballet in Amsterdam, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and New York’s Joyce Theatre. In 2014, she was selected to be an advisor to Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

Speaking shortly after the performance, a buoyant Shapiro explained that choreographing a dance to be performed on top of a skyscraper, with an audience on all sides, came with its own set of challenges.

“It’s very unusual and challenging for this production because usually we choreograph only for one side, and now it’s all around,” she said. “I had to adjust the choreography and tell the dancers to be aware that the audience would be all around you.”

She added that, with the helipad performance, the team at the Khmer Arts Academy wanted to offer something new to Phnom Penh’s residents.

“We normally see [Cambodian dance] at concerts, on TV, in a studio or at the theatre,” she said. “But [our team wanted] to introduce Phnom Penh’s audience, both Khmer and foreigner, to something new. Something local, but something new as well.”