In recent years, one Cambodian-American name ‘Prumsodun Ok’ seems to pop up everywhere around the world – from a small art gallery in Bangkok to a prominent performing arts meeting in Japan. And last April, he just appeared on the stage of TED2017 in Vancouver, Canada. As a choreographer, as a fighter, as a founder of the first gay dance company in Cambodia, it’s our delight to sit down and know more about this visionary artist who for an ‘alternative’ of gay pride before he come to present his dance performance ‘Beloved’ in Bangkok Theatre Festival Asia Focus during June 2-4, 2017 at Thong Lor Art Space.
(Show information and booking, please click here)
Photo by Lim Sokchanlina
Could you please tell us about your brief story how you started dancing?
I've always loved dance. One of my earliest memories is wearing my sister's red dress and imitating dance movements from the television screen when I was four years old. My parents used to record me dancing, cheering with joy and excitement. As I got older though, I tried to push myself away from dance because it was a marker of my femininity. Many of the neighborhood kids called me gay, faggot, ‘kteuy’—and I did everything to hide this in order to fit in and protect myself.
When I was sixteen, I found out that my sisters were taking dance classes so I went to watch out of curiosity. My love for the dance resurfaced and I would walk them to class every day, watching the way the teacher taught each student, the way she led class, comparing the difference between each of the dancers. I went to every performance and was their biggest fan.
Eventually, after a year of sitting and watching and absorbing, I asked the teacher if I could join. She said yes to my pleasant surprise, and I was really lucky, as this teacher was Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who was just beginning her journey as a choreographer and is now Cambodia's most important dance artist.
And you became an artist…
Even though I was dancing, I never understood what art was. We were taught that dance was our culture and identity. And I would not even be able to explain what culture or identity was if someone asked me to. It was not until I went to study experimental filmmaking that I understood art as a tool to question, shape, and explore the world around me. And, importantly, just as we were trying to find and forge our own personal voice and language through film, I realized I could do the same with dance. This is the moment that marked my emergence as an artist.
Since that time, I began making my own works. They were eventually supported by both people working in the sphere of traditional art and those working in the context of contemporary performance. I really became a bridge between different communities, vocabularies, and worlds, which makes sense given how I was born and raised in, of, and between many different cultural spaces and contexts.
Photo by Long Sorl
From US to Cambodia, why did you move back?
My decision to move to Cambodia was completely coincidence or fate—however you want to call it. I was planning to move to Mexico City but I had received a grant to develop Beloved in Cambodia. So I thought that I would just come for a year but after training the young men around me, watching them grow, and seeing that they looked like a real company, I had an ahah! moment. Cambodia's first gay dance company just formed in my living room, and all of a sudden my dreams and vision in life got bigger and fuller and somehow more sharper and realistic. My purpose and road in life crystallized before me at this moment.
What is the situation contemporary performing art in Cambodia?
It's quite difficult when I think about the state of contemporary performing arts in Cambodia. Our country is still grappling with the legacies of war, and we struggle with a lack of infrastructure, limited educational opportunities, and scarce resources for funding. Beyond creation, contemporary performing artists and companies must use a lot of energy to do produce our own projects and we are constantly working to develop our audience. Getting some people to pay $5 USD for a performance can be a challenge so we find ourselves having to show people how and why to value the arts.
That said, more than half of Cambodia's population is under thirty-five years old so there is a young audience that is looking for something new and fresh that reflects their world and who they are today. In terms of experimental performance, theater and music are quite limited. Much of the experimentation is coming from dancers trained in classical dance forms such as ‘robam’ and ‘khaol’. Because of this, as we are ultimately coming from one movement lineage, we are all connected and like one big extended family.
Maybe there is not a lot of contemporary performing artists in Cambodia but I can say that the things that we make here cannot be found anywhere else. Furthermore, the definition of contemporary dance in Cambodia is very broad—I especially believe it is important to nurture this openness in an art world that can be very neo-colonial in the way that it defines, presents, and funds work.
Contemporary, just means "with time," and time for me is a layered experience. Contemporary has nothing to do with vocabulary, culture, or geographic location the way that some people like to believe. Calling one's work "contemporary" makes it neither innovative, meaningful, special, nor relevant.
Performers of Prumsodun Ok and NATYARASA. Photo by Nobuyuki Arai
And what's about gay?
The LGBTQ community is rapidly gaining visibility in Cambodia. I see that there is a sense of power to be had in this formation of community but, if we are not careful, we may lose a sense of who we are as individuals, as a people, and as a region. For example, when I first came to Cambodia in 2008 the drags shows featured Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, American songs. Now, all of the drag is very American.
I understand that it's important to be involved and connected to the larger dialogue. But if we are not sensitive, being gay in Cambodia will mean listening to Lady Gaga or whatever just like it is in West Hollywood. Strange—because as a gay Khmer American, I never saw myself or had a place in mainstream American culture, nor mainstream gay American culture even, which can be very classist, racist, and misogynist at times.
What is a local expression of the LGBTQ community in Cambodia? What is something that only we can have as individuals? As a community in Phnom Penh? In Cambodia? In Asia? In the world? Perhaps we can find a universality through an exploration of our specificities, and perhaps it is possible to find ways to connect with and honor each other through our differences just as much as our similarities.
What is idea behind the combination of 'Gay' and 'Cambodian Classical Dance' in yours creations?
Khmer classical dance is a mirror of heaven. And heaven is a society's expression of its highest ideals of beauty and social order. If there are no images or narratives of gay people in this ritual reflection, it means we don't exist. This absence can explain why LGBTQ people are often misunderstood, stigmatized, beaten, burned, and thrown off buildings all over the world today.
To deliberately describe Prumsodun Ok and NATYARASA as a gay dance company is to carve a clear space for LGBTQ people in the tradition and the society that it represents. In a sense, we are stretching and re-choreographing the image of heaven. We are offering the vulnerable art of Khmer classical dance new caretakers and possibilities, showing Cambodia and the world that being gay is not contrary to tradition.
Photo by Ryan Lash
Can you tell us about your participation in TED?
I was selected as a TED Senior Fellow in 2017. As a result, I will be attending four TED conferences over the course of two years. It really is a great platform to meet young game changers who are at the forefront of their fields, working in everything from fashion and environmental conservation to photography and medicine.
This year, I was given a chance to share the history of Khmer dance at TED2017 in Vancouver. I used the opportunity to talk about the dance form's more than 1,000-year history, the transformation of nature in art, the role of the artist in society, and what it means to be a creator in a post-conflict society—all of this in ten minutes!
Ultimately, I am very thankful for this opportunity to share the story of my artistic lineage and that of Cambodia, for we need so many new caretakers to help push our art form and country forward. Furthermore, it's an amazing and inspirational week to share and explore life shifting ideas from all over the world.
What is 'Beloved'?
Beloved is inspired by a ritual from the thirteenth century that was recorded by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese emissary to the Khmer court at Angkor. Daguan made note of how the king would climb to the top of a temple every night to make love to a naga who took the form of a woman. If the serpent didn't show up, it meant that the king would die soon. If he didn't show up, it meant that some form of devastation—drought, famine, disease—would be wreaked upon the land.
This is a tantric ritual in which the union of masculine and feminine was believed to ensure the fall of rain, and many of Cambodia's most sacred dances feature this tantric union of male of female energies. I'm continually doing research for this project and I find myself digging into the histories of India and Japan as a result, and into esoteric Buddhism in particular.
I won't say much more because I always prefer people to feel the work first. The mind can follow the heart, spirit, and gut. However, maybe I'll just leave with the questions that have pushed me as a creator for this project: How can I make a contemporary rain dance for an art world that presents itself as neutral and secular? How can I make a dance that captures the spiritual weight and intensity that I feel in Cambodia's most sacred works?
Performers of Prumsodun Ok and NATYARASA. Photo by Nobuyuki Arai
What's the main focusing for your art creation right now?
My main focus in art is to serve the tradition that I have inherited in the fullest manner, as a performer, creator, teacher, and more. I wear many hats, both artistic and administrative, but ultimately all of these roles are in the service of my art and the larger communities in which it exists. When I make something I always ask: Is this work pushing me? Is this work pushing art? Is this work pushing the world? The answer should be "yes" to all three.
In your opinion, what's made performing art difference from other art form?
The power of performance lies in impermanence. Our gestures and movements are dying as they are born, and this is so harmonious with Buddhist philosophy and with nature itself. Perhaps this fleeting quality is what makes performance so special, from our bodies that are constantly in a process of decay and transformation to moments that can never be had again.
Interview by Wayla Amatathammachad
‘Beloved’ by Prumsodun Ok and NATYARASA will be presented during June 2-4, 2017 – 8.00 PM at Thong Lor Art Space for the show information and booking, please click here