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An elevated evening of dance

Dancers perform Monkul Lokey, an interpretation of the Song of Songs from the Hebrew Bible.
Dancers perform Monkul Lokey, an interpretation of the Song of Songs from the Hebrew Bible. Eliah Lillis

An elevated evening of dance

The Helipad of Phnom Penh’s Canadia Tower was converted into a dance stage on Thursday night for a first-of-its-kind performance by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble.

At an elevation of 118 metres from the street, only the nearby Vattanac tower stood taller than the dancers as they performed Dancing Above the City.

The concept, proposed by Khmer Arts, Canadia Tower, MAADS, and Dara Airport Hotel, presented a challenge to choreographer Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro and to the dancers.

“[At first] I felt afraid, but now I feel different, and excited because I never performed like that,” dancer Sot Sovanndy told The Post after the show.

Having danced with the ensemble for 10 years, Sovanndy said that the experience evoked the feeling of dancing in the Kandal countryside, where she grew up.

“Here it’s under the moonlight. I feel like I’m back in my childhood, in my homeland and not in the city,” she said.

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Dancer Keo Kunthearum poses for a picture after the performance. Eliah Lillis

For Cheam-Shapiro, the location presented several technical challenges, as well as a need to adjust choreography for 360-degree viewing to accommodate the audience, which sat in a circle around the stage.

“The dance needs to be reflective of the space,” she said, explaining how head turns and other body movements would be extended or altered to cater to the seating. “It also opens the door for a new way of moving.”

On top of this, Cheam-Shapiro needed to adjust to last-minute technical difficulties. Until the night before the show, the two light masts were expected to be 5 metres tall. On the eve of the performance, she was informed that the height could not exceed the tower’s lightning rod.

“We had to refocus the light right up until the guests arrived,” she said. But despite the challenges, the vision succeeded. The first act featured a solo performance by dancer Keo Kunthearum of a mythological story of a serpent that eats its own tail.

“Traditionally, you have eight or 12 dancers joined together to make a serpent, but I wanted to make a solo piece . . . It’s a very intimate, personal issue [for the serpent],” she said. “It’s about an identity crisis.”

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Keo Kunthearum depicts a serpent who eats her own tail. Eliah Lillis

The main act, Monkul Lokey, which Cheam-Shapiro choreographed in 2008 for an a cappella by composer John Zorn reimagining the Hebrew bible’s Song of Songs, was a sensory blend of cultures.

“I would call this an experimental classical dance because . . . it steps away from the traditional way of choreographing,” she said. “I think we shouldn’t be scared . . . or forbidden from doing that.”

For now, another performance like Dancing Above the City has not been scheduled, but Cheam-Shapiro is optimistic.

“If we made this work and everyone is happy I’m sure this can be repeated and this can be one of the sites.”

A previous version of this article misstated the organisers of the event. The Post apologizes for any confusion.

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