Commentary by VoiceWaves Project Director + Executive Editor Prumsodun Ok. Photos by VoiceWaves Youth Journalist John Oliver Santiago.
On Saturday, October 15, 2011, a team of VoiceWaves Youth Journalists and I met at the Khmer Arts Academy studio. We were scheduled to interview acclaimed choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and her renowned Khmer Arts Ensemble. Having been a student of Sophiline, and a teacher and curator at the Academy, as well as having trained with the Khmer Arts Ensemble, this event was a beautiful collision of three of my worlds: my students at the Khmer Arts Academy, my dear friends at the Khmer Arts Ensemble, and VoiceWaves.
I share these photos, with commentary, as a teaser to our upcoming video profile of Sophiline and her dancers.
While waiting for Sophiline and her dancers, I decided to help young dancers of the Khmer Arts Academy dress for their performance at the first ever Los Angeles Art Festival. The Academy is the leading Cambodian classical dance ensemble in the region and provides free workshops to the public on a weekly basis at its Cambodia Town studio. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Subtle and refined, details are of extreme importance in the art of Cambodian classical dance. Teachers make sure their students look flawless from front to back, top to bottom, before each performance. After all, they are transforming into the gods. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Dancers must be sewn into their costumes. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Khmer Arts Academy Artist-in-Residence Sophanmay Nong, left, sews an Academy dancer into her skirt. Originally from Phnom Penh and a dancer with the Khmer Arts Ensemble, Sophanmay is the primary teacher at the Academy. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Khmer Arts Academy Artist-in-Residence Sophanmay Nong sews an Academy dancer into her skirt. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
The love of a teacher is such that he will go down on his knees to mold the toes of his student. My teacher Sophiline showed me this type of love, as her teacher did to her. I often think of how the world will be different if all teachers demonstrated this same kind of devotion and intimate connection with their students. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, left, talks to VoiceWaves Youth Journalist Cheeravath Aphipunyo. Among many awards, Sophiline is a Guggenheim Fellow and NEA National Heritage Fellow. She founded the Khmer Arts Academy with her husband John in 2002. Today, Khmer Arts is a transnational organization with four branches: Academy, Ensemble, Media, and Research & Archiving. For more information: www.khmerarts.org. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Looking on as VoiceWaves Youth Journalist Cheeravath Aphipunyo talks to Sophiline. A second-generation Cambodian American, he has been chosen to interview Sophiline and the artists from Cambodia. It means so much for me to have my own teacher meet my students as nurturing community health starts with nurturing people. Young people — especially crucial for those in poor communities — need to be exposed to world-class teachers and ideas in order to grow beyond the realities immediately around them. They need positive role models and mentors who will light, feed, and direct the fire of their spirit. Photo by Youth Journalist John Oliver Santiago.
VoiceWaves Youth Journalist Sophinarath Cheang, left, talks to Sophiline. Sophinarath, originally from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, will fill in Cheeravath’s gap in language during the interview process. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
We decide it is best to interview after the Academy dancers have gone. In the meantime, Sophiline and I focus our energies on helping them get ready. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Sharp precision: Sophiline adjusts the movements of an Academy dancer before the performance. It is with this careful love, attention, and guidance that has allowed myself — and many others — to grow beyond the cyclical violence, poverty, and sadness of central Long Beach. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Looking on as Sophiline and Serey Tep, Khmer Arts Academy Managing Director, adjust the costume of an Academy dancer. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
The Khmer word sopheap, meaning something like a “gentle grace,” is embodied by this Academy dancer. The Academy dancers will perform Robam Apsara which depicts Mera, mother of the Khmer race, and her heavenly attendants playing in a garden. Born of the violent struggle between gods and demons, taking form from the foam rising from the destructive churning of the sea of milk which killed the animals in the ocean, the apsara are symbols of transcendant beauty and purity. This image, grace and refinement amongst chaotic violence, is something that I think of a lot when thinking of my life and those of my students. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
An Academy dancer puts on earrings. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Sophiline and her Khmer Arts Ensemble begin rehearsing. Based in Takhmao, Cambodia, the Khmer Arts Ensemble is the premiere Cambodian classical dance company in the world and has toured through out Asia, Europe, and the United States. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Khmer Arts Ensemble dancer Mot Pharan, right, demonstrates the extreme strength, flexibility, and grace required to be a professional Cambodian classical dancer. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Two worlds, Cambodian and Cambodian American, united by one art form. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Sophiline and her Khmer Arts Ensemble rehearse at the Khmer Arts Academy studio. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Reaksemy Lath, a Cambodian American instructor at the Khmer Arts Academy, asks me for some instruction before her performance. Here, I arch her back to form the curves that are crucial to the Cambodian classical dance aesthetic. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Reaksmey dances as I sing and mold her form. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Singing and observing Reaksmey’s movements as I dance in demonstration. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
Detail creates meaning: each angle of an elbow, of the wrist, of the head must be precise to accurately portray each character. This type of intimate teaching, where the touch of the teacher is so crucial in molding the body, character, and spirit of the student, is something missing in standard models of education. Photo John Oliver Santiago.