Choreographer Looks to Life for Inspiration

In 1990, as Cambodia was re-opening its doors and its warring political factions were deep into negotiations that would lead to the Paris Peace Agreements, an American by the name of John Shapiro made a short visit to Phnom Penh and fell hopelessly in love.

Her name was Sophiline Cheam, a Khmer classical dancer who was about to embark on a U.S. tour as part of Cambodia’s national ballet company.

 From left, dancer Sao Somaly, choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, dancer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess rehearse in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

From left, dancer Sao Somaly, choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, dancer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess rehearse in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“We had a very unusual courtship in a very unique period of Cambodian history,” he said on Thursday. Mr. Shapiro was in Los Angeles when her dance company arrived, and by the end of the tour, he had asked her to marry him. The wedding took place in April 1991—25 years ago next month.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro is now a seasoned choreographer and the head of her own dance ensemble, and she is turning the story of her courtship and wedding into a Khmer classical ballet, with original music by composer Him Sophy.

“It’s the first time that, as far as I know, anybody has ever made a [Khmer] classical dance about the present, about a contemporary time and place as opposed to mythology or folklore,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Ms. Cheam Shapiro has finished choreographing three scenes in what will ultimately become a full-length ballet. The scene that depicts her wedding to Mr. Shapiro will be presented publicly tonight for the first time during a show at Chaktomuk Theater in Phnom Penh. The show will feature three of Ms. Cheam Shapiro’s works and three pieces by American choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess, a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department who is visiting Cambodia this week with six of his company’s dancers.

One of them, Ian Ceccarelli, will play the role of Mr. Shapiro in the wedding scene under the direction of Mr. Burgess.

“He loves it,” Mr. Burgess said on Thursday. “Professional dancers enjoy moving in different styles and trying new situations.”

The show starts at 7 p.m.

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