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  • Cambodia's Seasons of Migration
  • Toni Shapiro-Phim (bio)

In classical Khmer dance dramas, the fluidity of gestural and choreographic movement is complemented by the seamlessness with which mythical figures move between the realms of sky, earth, and sea. Such mythical migrations have been the subject of Khmer dance dramas for centuries. In this essay I explore the recent development and performance of one specific danced story of migration and the performers' social realities that complicate their relationship to their art and to this story in particular. I discuss transnational migration's impact on current and future possibilities for Khmer classical dance, and the lessons Cambodia's female dancers take from the fluidity, adaptability, and flexibility required of Khmer choreography as they negotiate their immediate social, cultural, and political upheavals.

I investigate these topics in relation to the work of Cambodian American dancer and choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, in particular her 2005 Seasons of Migration, a dance choreographed in the Khmer classical idiom that addresses the topic of migration.1Seasons tells the story of celestial beings' adjustment to life on earth as a reflection of the choreographer's own migrant experience. Immigrating as an adult to the United States, Sophiline was born and came of age as a dancer in Cambodia. Her Seasons features four scenes in which classical dancers portray divine beings who confront the elation, anger and frustration, experimentation, and eventual equilibrium of a person dealing with the fine-tuning of a life in flux.

This essay considers, as well, a film, also titled Seasons of Migration, that documents the performance and lives of the Cambodia-based, all-female troupe of dancers who toured the United States with the choreographer in 2005 to perform this new work.2 The documentary [End Page 56] presents unique perspectives on the relationship between a danced representation of migration and actual migration stories of Cambodian immigrants in the United States who reflect on their evolving bond with their adopted land (Figure 1).

Sophiline3 was among the first generation of classical dancers trained in Cambodia following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, a government whose policies and practices had resulted in the death of an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the country's professional artists (dancers, musicians, playwrights, painters, and so on) in under four years.4 A teacher at the University of Fine Arts, Sophiline left Cambodia in 1991 and immigrated to the United States with a fiancée visa. After marrying and graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles's program in World Arts and Cultures, she returned to Cambodia in 1999 as a choreographer, creating an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello for dancers there. In 2004, with support from the National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts, she returned to Cambodia again, this time to develop another new work, Seasons of Migration.5

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Figure 1.

Seasons of Migration rehearsal and sound recording (and nap time) at a Long Beach, California, studio soon after arrival from Cambodia. Sam Sathya (standing). Still from movie. Used with permission.

I attended a dress rehearsal of Seasons (the dance) in Cambodia in 2004. The work inspired me to reflect further on Cambodian women's lived experience and the balancing they must do given their unique histories, whether in Cambodia or in the United States, and on the ways in which Khmer dance is being reshaped, in part, by and because of these experiences. Examining the negotiation of the contemporary clouded divide between "here" and "there," and the implications of movement away from and back to Cambodia, I want to pay attention to the ways in which a new configuration of the world influences women's creative choices in their art and lives. Both a recent past of tremendous political, geographical, and social displacement and the contemporary ease of and opportunities for international communication and travel factor into this new framework. In addition, [End Page 57] deeply entrenched cultural attitudes and practices related to gender roles and expectations continue to impact women's professional and personal volition.

Part One of the Dance: Euphoria

Seasons of Migration, the...


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