The protégée of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro of Sophiline Arts Ensemble, American Cambodian Prumsodun Ok, 30, is breaking new ground in Cambodia, having launched the world’s first gay Khmer classical dance troupe, Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Lucas Veuve.

When did you start dancing?

When I was four, my dad used to go to the temple and record amateur dances. I’d watch them and imitate the movements but I didn’t have any proper training until I was 16. My sisters started classes and for a year, I’d go to every session and watch the way the woman, who became my teacher [Cheam Shapiro], worked with dancers and the way they performed. I’d sit and absorb everything, really wanting to dance, but not having the courage to ask because I misunderstood the art, as many do, as a female art form. Finally, I asked if I could study and she said yes.

Thankfully, Sophiline was really beginning her trajectory as a choreographer so I was very lucky to have such special and precise training.

When did you come to Cambodia?

I’ve been coming back and forth since 2008 but never had any intention to live here. About two years ago, I was associate assistant director of Khmer Arts in Long Beach and started to feel I had plateaued. Culture and dance for young Cambodian Americans is ethnic identity as opposed to a set of values, a philosophy you hold in your heart. It was hard because they weren’t interested in being artists; it was a hobby. I’m interested in dance as a way to question, explore and inspire change in the world, and felt I’d hit a wall. I told Sophiline and suddenly got emails from her saying I had her support to develop some projects in Cambodia. I initially came for a year, fell in love and decided to form the troupe.

How did you find the dancers?

I held auditions and had people in mind I wanted to work with. Then I realised I didn’t know them or how open they were to new ideas because what they’re doing is very new. To go on stage and say say, “I’m a gay man, I belong to a gay dance company,” is very brave. These men would perform roles that for the past several hundred years only women have performed, even the male roles. So, instead of picking five dancers right away, I worked with 12 for three months and picked four dancers and three understudies. Two of them were not the original ones I would have chosen so I’m glad I did this.

Describe your style?

I studied experimental film making and one of my most influential teachers said ‘experimental isn’t a product’. It doesn’t have to have a way of looking; it’s an approach. The way I approach dance is that something can look very traditional yet be so radical. There are degrees of experimentation in my work. For example, for some I set Khmer classical dance onto pop music. Some, I don’t use music at all, I use narration in English and Khmer. Sometimes, I bend and break the movements.

How has the public reacted?

There will always be people who love you and people who hate you, and I know that. Before I auditioned the dancers, I received threats of physical violence. Since I’ve come here to work with them, there has been a transformation because people have seen what we can achieve. I’m pretty sure there are still people who are unhappy that I’m here but generally it has been ok. We made our Cambodian debut in August at the Department of Performing Arts, which is the Ministry of Culture’s theatre, so when we got permission that was a gesture of opening already. The theatre welcomed guests an hour early and within five minutes it was full of people from all walks of life. Many stayed behind for the question and answer session, which was very encouraging. It was incredible.

What is your role in Cambodia?

I feel so much was lost during the genocide. All this knowledge and all these possibilities; so much was lost. I want to help rebuild but I’m not interested in imitating the past, I’m interested in carrying history forward and drawing from it in the most dynamic way possible for the future. 

You are a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Fellow. What does this involve?

I was recently selected as a 2017 TED Senior Fellow so for the next two years I will attend the two large annual conferences, which is a fantastic opportunity. This connects us to potential collaborators and young innovators from different fields across the world to create new possibilities. At the end of April, I will go to Canada for TED to talk about Khmer dance and its history, Cambodia’s history and about how to rebuild and revive. I will talk about the troupe’s work and our lives as gay men. We will also attend the Bangkok Theatre Festival in early June to perform some experimental work, which we are very excited about.

What is your next move?

We are very excited about the future and have many plans but for now we recently opened classes to the public, and both men and women have enrolled – all are Khmer. We also just launched bi-weekly performances on Saturdays in my home studio. There are only 25 guests and it is by candlelight so it’s a really intimate chance to see Khmer dance and our company.

For more information, visit prumsodun.com.