Khmer Arts Ensemble Brings World Premiere to Bryn Mawr College’s Performing Arts Season

Fusing the classical and experimental, the spare and complex, and the powerfully spiritual , Cambodia’s  Khmer Arts Ensemble will take center stage at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall when the troupe presents The Lives of Giants, choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s newest work. Touring the nation this fall with 30 musicians and dancers from Pnom Penh, the company’s latest World Premiere appears one night only, Friday, October 22 at 8 p.m. in the McPherson Auditorium, Goodhart Hall as a centerpiece of Bryn Mawr College’s 2010-2011 Performing Arts Series.

Ticket prices are $20, $18 for senior citizens, and free for Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore students, faculty and staff, $10 for students of other schools, and $5 for children 12 and under. Priority seating is available for $90 subscription packages ($75 packages for senior citizens). For more information and tickets visit Brown Paper Tickets (brownpapertickets.com), call the Office for the Arts at 610-526-5210 (after August 23) or visit http://www.brynmawr.edu/arts.

Works by the Khmer Arts Ensemble have been described as a “gorgeous spectacle of contradictory sensations” in The New York Times. Its Artistic Director and Choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro has been honored as a 2009 National Heritage Fellow, a lifetime award made by the National Endowment for the Arts in recognition of exceptional artistic excellence. In her latest work, she brings a magical tale from the Cambodian Ramayana to life, using it to reflect on her country’s turbulent past. In The Lives of Giants, performed by thirty exquisitely trained dancers and musicians, Cheam Shapiro strips away layers of elaborate traditional costuming and the formal vocabulary of classical Cambodian dance to examine how the perpetuation of violence leads to the erosion of the sublime.

Cheam Shapiro’s work with the Khmer Arts Ensemble balances opposing qualities by being at once   experimental and classical, spiritual and powerfully spare. The Lives of Giants reflects this complexity, lying along a continuum from classical Cambodian dance’s mytho-poetic realm of magnificent dress and nuanced vocabulary to an utterly contemporary realm. The musicians and singers of Khmer Arts composed the score and Cheam Shapiro wrote the lyrics. Costumes were designed by opera, theater and film designer Merrily Murray-Walsh, with lighting by Marcus Doshi (who designed Cheam Shapiro’s Samritechak/Othello and Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute).

Drawn from an episode of the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Ramayana), The Lives of Giants tells the tale of Akheang Khamaso, a much-mistreated giant in Shiva’s heavenly temple who seeks a weapon to protect himself from the taunts of mischievous angels.  But when Shiva grants him a magic finger that can make anyone disappear, he cannot help dishing out abuse in return.  Alerted to the chaos raging through heaven, Vishnu transforms himself into a beautiful dancer and seduces Akheang Khamaso, tricking the giant into turning his magic finger on himself.  Enraged and humiliated, Akheang Khamaso vows to be reborn with even more power in order to continue the cycle of abuse and violence that is his fate in this life and the next.  As Akheang Khamaso’s demonic nature surges, Cheam Shapiro’s depiction of heaven devolves. Layers of elaborate traditional costuming and the formal vocabulary of the classical Cambodian dance form are stripped away to reveal the sadness and frustration of a bully and a resonant message about the tragic effects of violence on a culture.

Cheam Shapiro feels that Cambodians have not yet come to terms with the extraordinary cruelty and suffering of their recent history and would rather avert their eyes than look evil in the face.  In her works exploring morality and identity, giants (an archetypal figure in Cambodian dance) are a vital and complex resource for addressing the issues that resonate within her life and culture.  In The Lives of Giants, these archetypes — often evil, but sometimes wise — are the departure point for considering the all-to-human demonic tendencies of Cambodian society over the past 39 years, the same consuming appetites that have plagued failed societies since the beginning of time.

Gia Kourlas of The New York Times said that a Khmer Arts performance takes, “such gradual, measured hold that by the time it’s over, you can’t help feeling as if you’ve crossed over to another world.” The Los Angeles Times said that watching the company is “akin to watching moonlight play across water.”  In that same review, The LA Times described Khmer Arts’ dancing as,  “each incremental shift of attention — the suggestion of a shrug here, the slightest hiccup of a filigreed step there — was so finely modulated in this art of nuance that one readily accepted the all-female troupe as the celestial creatures of myth.”

The Lives of Giants tours the United States in the fall. As part of its Khmer Arts residency, Bryn Mawr College will host a series of free events related to Cambodian culture and arts at both college venues and in the wider Philadelphia area. A full listing will be available on www.brynmawr.edu/arts in September.

The presentation and residency of Khmer Arts Ensemble is made possible by a grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Dance Advance, with  additional support provided by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

About Sophiline Cheam Shapiro
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro is a choreographer, dancer, vocalist, and educator of classical Cambodian dance. Raised in Phnom Penh, she studied dance at the University of Fine Arts there, joining its faculty in 1981. After moving to California in 1991 she studied dance ethnology at UCLA from 1997–99. Cheam Shapiro maintains the core of traditional Cambodian dance while adding contemporary content, such as the role of women in traditional cultures, and working with contemporary composers. She co-founded Khmer Arts, a transnational dance organization based in Phnom Penh and Long Beach, California, which has the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia.

About Khmer Arts
The Khmer Arts Ensemble is an internationally acclaimed classical dance and music troupe. Co-founder and Artistic Director Sophiline Cheam Shapiro graduated from Phnom Penh’s University of Fine Arts and taught there from 1988 to 1991. She is a choreographer, dancer, vocalist and educator whose original works—giving new life to Cambodian classical dance—have been performed worldwide. Today’s pin peat musicians are Cambodian performing artists who studied and served as faculty in Cambodia’s National Department of Performing Arts, Phnom Penh’s National School of Fine Arts, and Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace.

About the Bryn Mawr Performing Arts Series

Since 1984 the Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series has presented great artists and performances to audiences in the Philadelphia area, creating an environment in which the value of the arts is recognized and celebrated. Talks and workshops provided free to the public help develop arts awareness and literacy. The Series works to lower barriers to arts access through its partnership with Art-Reach, a non-profit  dedicated to improving arts accessibility for people of all ages and circumstances, and through its low ticket prices.

The Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series is uniquely positioned as a regional dance presenter. The Series includes two dance performances each season as well as evenings of world music, classical music and theater. The Series’ roster has included performances by: Lucy Guerin Inc., Yin Mei, India Jazz Suites, Sean Curran Company, Garth Fagan Dance, Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, Heidi Latsky Dance, Urban Bush Women, and the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

About Steven Weisz

A Graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with advanced degrees in Psychology and Education is an entrepreneur and CEO for several for-profits and non-profit corporations in the region. He is also an adjunct professor of Psychology with several local Universities.

Steven is currently the CEO of Delaware Valley on Line, one of the first regional Internet Service Provides that now focuses on business-class web hosting, design, and internet marketing. He is president and founder of Rainbow Promotions Inc., a special events and entertainment agency established in the late 70’s, that services corporate and retail accounts both locally and nationally.

Steven is the Founder of PhiladelphiaDANCE.org, the largest web presence and resource for the dance community in the greater Philadelphia region, and the Founder and Editor of The Dance Journal. His involvement in the dance community extends to being Director of Graffito Works, an international platform for dancers and performing artists to create site-specific work and to make it readily accessible to the public.

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