The Magic of Khmer Classical Dance Back in Phnom Penh

From the very first moments of the ballet “Thunder and Lightning,” the audience is transported to a different time, swept away by the strength and beauty of Khmer classical dance.

On stage is an eternal Khmer universe where dancers seem to float rather than walk—mysterious beings too perfect to be real.

Dancers in the Sophiline Arts Ensemble rehearse a scene from the ballet 'Thunder and Lightning.' (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Dancers in the Sophiline Arts Ensemble rehearse a scene from the ballet ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

This, however, is a contemporary version of a classic. There is movement, set at a faster pace than traditional Khmer ballet.

Interpreted by 17 dancers accompanied by seven musicians and two singers, the ballet—choreographed by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and presented tonight through Sunday at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall in Phnom Penh—is based on a dance whose origin goes back centuries.

“Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala is a sacred dance that is performed as part of the ritual for rain,” said Ms. Cheam Shapiro. “The creative imagination [of the original work] is brilliant.”

“Moni Mekhala is the goddess of the ocean who carries a crystal,” she explained. “Ream Eyso is the spirit of the storm who carries a diamond ax. And Vorachhun is the spirit of the Earth who carries a magic dagger.”

The “modern” version of the work, first staged in 1933, was two hours long. Turning it into a 50-minute ballet for Ms. Cheam Shapiro’s dance company, the Sophiline Arts Ensemble, has meant condensing some parts of it, and cutting sections not essential to the story. “I focused on the drama itself,” she said.

The main characters dance according to the original choreography. But in this modified version of the dance, which she first staged in 2009, Ms. Cheam Shapiro is making greater use of the dancers surrounding them.

With folding fans in their hands, the dancers become blue ocean waves, gold-tinted clouds and a foreboding purple sky, adding movement and even suspense to the dance. In one scene, Ream Eyso must move aside dancers holding fans—a cloud formation—in order to reach Moni Mekhala.

The performers wear magnificent Khmer traditional dance costumes, but move within modern scenery designed by artist Prom Vichet.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Mr. Vichet, who has designed numerous sets for movie productions, had only 15 days to design the set based on Ms. Cheam Shapiro’s vision.

The short deadline worried him, he said, so he appealed to his former students from the Royal University of Fine Arts to lend a hand. About 15 students plus a few fellow artists answered his call.

“We used 60 meters of canvas and about 7 kg of fishing nets,” he said. The work required carefully cutting 400 “Khmer kbach” decorative motifs out of canvas and putting them on the fishnet panels.

Although his team worked 14 to 17 hours a day, the result is not as flawless as Mr. Volak had wished, he said. But the panels nevertheless add to the ethereal atmosphere of the dance.

The performances of “Thunder and Lightning” will be staged at 7 p.m.

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