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Classical Dance Tells Story of Cambodian Genocide’s Forced Marriages

Dancers from the Sophiline Arts Ensemble perform "Phka Sla Krom Angkar," a piece about forced marriages in Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Courtesy of Sophiline Shapiro

As a trained dancer, Sophiline Shapiro has often used her art to explore social justice issues.

But her artistry took on an even deeper meaning recently when she was tasked with choreographing a performance to highlight the gender-based violence inflicted by Khmer Rouge-led forced marriages in her native Cambodia.

The regime killed 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979, according to research from Yale University. During the reign, an estimated half million men and women were forced to marry, according to Shapiro's project.

Shapiro, who was among the first generation to study and perform classical dance after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, used interviews and consultations to develop the performance, which examines forced marriage under the regime. The piece, "Phka Sla Krom Angkar," performed by Shapiro's Sophiline Arts Ensemble, premiered in January at Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk Hall.

"My dance is shining a light on a traumatic experience of our history," Shapiro told NBC News via email.

RELATED: Project Preserves Cambodian Genocide Survivor Stories After Decades of Silence

Classical dance, she said, is Cambodia's most revered art form. "So taking a story that has been a source of shame and anguish for so many and retelling it in a language usually reserved for the stories of gods and angels, well, that says, 'this is important, pay attention,'" she said.

An exhibit on the Cambodian genocide accompanying "Phka Sla Krom Angkar" Courtesy of Sophiline Shapiro

Khmer Arts, founded by Shapiro and her husband John, is the lead organization of the project, which started with American researcher Theresa de Langis. De Langis interviewed survivors for a research project and proposed a documentary theater performance as a reparations project for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), according to John Shapiro. The ECCC was established to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge and support survivors of the Cambodian Genocide.

"We aim to publicly acknowledge and memorialize the experiences of those who were forced to be married under the Khmer Rouge and to share their experiences with younger generations that may not be familiar with this unique aspect of their country's history," he told NBC News. "We also hope to encourage discussions about how this legacy has an impact on gender relations in contemporary society."

Dancers from the Sophiline Arts Ensemble in a performance of "Phka Sla Krom Angkar." Courtesy of Sophiline Shapiro

De Langis spent four years gathering the oral histories of witnesses and survivors of sexual violence during the Khmer Rouge period, she said. The interviews were published so the younger generations could learn about them.

But the classical dance element was a way to reach the survivors.

"Since I have worked so closely with survivors for so long, I know that many of them cannot read," de Langis told NBC News. "I also teach humanities, and I saw the central importance of Khmer classical dance to the cultural identity of Cambodians. Because the ECCC reparations can only be symbolic and collective, I thought a dance based on the actual testimonies of the survivors — verbatim theater — would be especially significant in this context as a way to use cultural forms to transform cultural norms, especially around gender inequality and violence against women."

Support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is allowing the consortium to bring the project to at least two provinces in Cambodia and complete the research and documentary aspects, according to John Shapiro.

"Remembering the crimes of the past is important but finding a way for society to move forward and make new, positive memories is vital," USAID Cambodia mission director Polly Dunford said in a statement.

For Sophiline Shapiro, the project brought about greater personal understanding of the issue: One of her older sisters confided that in late 1978, she, too, was told she was going to be married that evening, though the Khmer Rouge members did not end up chasing after her.

"In 28 years, she had never told anyone that story," Shapiro said.

She also learned that two of her dancers are children of parents who were forced to be married.

"They brought their mothers to the performance and, in both cases, wept as they explained how much their mothers loved the dance," Shaprio said. "They had never really discussed their experiences before."

Because Cambodian classical dance typically tells the story of gods, kings, and magical animals — not real people in history —Shapiro had to strike the right balance, she said, which in some ways worked to her benefit.

"For example, my dancers are all women," she said. "If I had cast men in the male roles, having them depict acts of sexual violence against female performers on stage might have traumatized Cambodian audiences. The scenes are disturbing, but having them performed by women makes them more interpretive and watchable."

De Langis said the art performance has helped to open the conversation on a topic that has been repressed and silence for decades.

"It is not easy to discuss because of the sexual element at its core — its purpose was to increase the population," she said. "It is especially difficult when the marriage remained intact and the couple had children. But the younger generation today is ready to face this past and, in understanding it, hopefully move beyond it. These are important lessons for the world today."

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