To live and die in dance

With distended belly and lice-filled hair, a starved, orphaned girl was transformed into a celestial nymph through dance.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who lost her father and brother during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979, learned the courtly arts performed 1,000 years ago in the Cambodian empire of Angkor. And through this, in essence, she found her voice.

This weekend, Shapiro shares her rejuvenated spirit with metro Detroit audiences as the choreographer of Pamina Devi, a Cambodian retelling of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute by the Khmer Arts Ensemble.

The radiant performance is not the only Southeast Asian music and dance event showcased in Ann Arbor. University Musical Society also brings the Balinese dance ensemble Cudamani (pronounced soo-duh-MAH-nee) to the stage.

Both Cambodian and Balinese dances evolved from Hindu roots, but their styles are fundamentally different. Balinese dance is traditionally performed by villagers in celebration of an Odalan, a temple festival held every 210 days. Cudamani’s Odalan Bali depicts the life cycle of the Balinese through the enactment of vivid mythologies. The troupe makes the lives of the commoner palpable to an audience halfway across the world.

Conversely, Cambodian dance, such as that by Shapiro’s troupe, was once performed only in the presence of royalty. The movements in Pamina Devi are slow and fluid, deliberate. Graceful dancers sinuously wind around the stage as they tell their story.

“The dancers represent the Naga, the Hindu snake god, who is responsible in Cambodia for the fertility of the earth,” says Charley Sullivan, program director for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at University of Michigan. “One of the reasons that the postures are what they are — why people dance in curves — is because the snake moves in curves. It’s an intricately detailed, richly costumed, refined court dance style.”

The dances are paired for good reason, however. Beyond showing Western audiences glitteringly exotic dances of the East, the troupes face similar challenges in contemporizing classical dance.

“Both groups are similar in that they are working to reconcile traditional sources with modern themes,” says Sullivan, who is a trained ballet and Javanese dancer, having grown up in Indonesia himself. “The companies are both asking questions — how do we take these traditional sources of dance, mythology and costuming, and make it living art?”

Pamina Devi tackles this issue in a more obvious sense, as a reworking of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Commissioned for a festival in Vienna last year celebrating the composer’s 250th birthday, it may seem an odd juxtaposition — Western opera performed as a classical Cambodian dance. Pamina Devi is, however, informed with themes central to the destabilization of Cambodia. The Magic Flute is a fantasy with a moral, telling the story of a mother and father — who respectively represent the traditional ways of the monarchy vs. reason and enlightenment — fighting over control of their daughter, Pamina. With counseling from a priest, Pamina faces the challenge of thinking for herself.

“When Sophiline was first asked to adapt the Magic Flute, she didn’t know what she was looking at,” says the choreographer’s husband, John Shapiro, executive director of Khmer Arts Ensemble. “But she eventually found her way through it — by finding parallels, resonances, in her own life.”

Shapiro says his wife lived through five radical regime changes in Cambodia, where poverty and corruption were rampant. With her father dead and her home burned down, had she not been taken under the wing of an uncle who enrolled her in a fine arts school, life may have turned out dramatically different for the dancer.

“People were so attached to their ideology and rhetoric that they started dying,” he says. “And so, in her interpretation of The Magic Flute, Pamina Devi has a choice: She can follow her parents’ extreme ideology, repeat their mistakes — or she can follow her own, more difficult path — and be happier for it.”

Shapiro communicates the interplay of old and new ideals — in politics and in the arts — through subtle choreography.

“It might be the sparkle, the costuming that draws people’s eyes to Asian dance,” says Sullivan. “And it is truly spectacular. But both of these performances also explore the human condition, the need for compassion and community through the arts.”

Cudamani’s Odalan Bali is at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 19 at Hill Auditorium, 825 N University Ave., Ann Arbor. Pamina Devi: A Cambodia Magic Flute is at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 20 and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. Call for 734-764-2538 for tickets.

Meghana Keshavan is Metro Times listings editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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