Po Sakun has refused to let the fact he uses a wheelchair let him get in the way of his dreams. Ahead of Epic Arts second annual run of Come Back Brighter, the dancer and workshop facilitator talks to editor Marissa Carruthers about how he is involved in the organisation’s work. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

What is Epic Arts?

Epic Arts is an international organisation that started in Kampot in 2003. Epic Arts believes every person counts and we have three main programmes: inclusive education, and community and social enterprise. The social enterprise includes Epic Café, Epic Encounters, Asia’s only inclusive dance group that do performances and workshops, and our shop Epic Creations. These all make money to support Epic Arts’ work. The inclusive education programme takes in different classes, including special education offering creative education to children with disabilities and the inclusive arts course – a two-year arts course for hearing and visually impaired, able and disabled people. The community work helps to spread our inclusive message across Cambodia.

How did you become involved with Epic Arts?

I already knew about Epic Arts because of its community outreach programme where performances are carried out in the community to raise awareness of the disability sector. I knew some friends who worked there and at the time I didn’t have a job so I went to visit them. I started the free sign language class every Friday and got to know more people. I applied for a part-time job as a volunteer receptionist in 2011 and later was promoted to administrator for the special education projects. Every month, the staff meet for a fun dance workshop and I joined them. Some people saw me dancing and said I was a beautiful dancer; I didn’t know. When the Inclusive Arts Course started in 2013, teaching dance, drama, computer skills and English, I was encouraged to apply. I worked half a day in my admin job and the rest at classes. I dropped my fancy clothes to become a dancer who sweats every day but I’m happy.

Why did dancing appeal to you?

My mum and dad were artists. They took part in traditional drama so I have it in my blood. I was lucky because during my two-year Inclusive Arts course, one of the wheelchair users who was in the Epic Encounters’ troupe won a scholarship to study in the UK so I replaced him. My dancing job started early even though I hadn’t graduated so I was working and learning until I started working full time with Epic Encounters in April 2015. 

Can you tell us about Come Back Brighter?

The performance tells Cambodia’s story through dance and music. It is all about my country’s art and culture; everything before the Pol Pot regime, during and after. Last year, we performed it once a week. This year we will show it twice a week. 

What was the reaction from the audience?

They loved it. When I did the audience report, it was mostly foreigners and a few local people. They got to learn more about the history of Cambodia while enjoying a performance and seeing what Epic Arts is doing. Many don’t realise until the end that a lot of the performers are deaf because it’s hard to tell, they don’t miss a beat. There are six of us – four are deaf, I’m a wheelchair user and the other does not have any disabilities so it’s really an inclusive team.

Why did you choose Royal Kampot Old Cinema as a venue?

It was a popular cinema before the Pol Pot regime but after the war started everything changed. The local family that own it now want the building to be used for arts events and exciting projects so this is perfect. It also has old architecture, which is interesting, and the history fits with the themes of Come Back Brighter. It’s nice to have more cultural things happening in Kampot to make it a bit more of a destination.

How do shows such as Come Back Brighter support Epic Arts?

The ticket sales raise money so we can carry out our work as well as help local people understand more how we work together, even with disabilities, to try to change perception. Some people still think negatively towards us so we want to show them we have talent and we can do things the same as other people. We can become artists and dancers even though we have disabilities. Last year, 62 percent of our funding was self-funded through our social enterprise projects so it really does help support what Epic Arts does.

How has Epic Arts helped you?

When I started to learn dancing it was the first time Epic Arts created the Inclusive Arts course. When we finished Epic Arts employed some of us, which shows they support people with disabilities. They also educate indirectly to the government and other organisations about what we do, which raises awareness and that is positive. 

What is in store for 2017?

We expect to get some commissions as we do a lot of work for NGOs and other organisations. We also have an exciting video project that we will start filming for soon but it won’t be will be released until about October. It’s an original so watch this space.

The contemporary dance show Come Back Brighter combines modern dance with archive film to explore Cambodia’s golden era, tragic history and exciting future. It can be seen every Tuesday and Friday at Royal Kampot Old Cinema from Jan. 3 to Feb. 24 at 7.30pm. Tickets are $10/ $7.