Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA is Cambodia’s first gay dance company. They re-stage Khmer classical dances with a vital freshness, and create original, groundbreaking works that thrive at the intersection of art and human dignity, and are committed to elevating the quality of life and expression for LGBTQ people in Cambodia. Eileen McCormick recently caught up with NATYARASA’s founder Prumsodun Ok who is also a TED Senior Fellow.
Good Times2: You have been labeled the first gay dance theater group representing traditional Cambodian dance on the international stage. Is this stressful? How do you deal with the people’s expectations?
Prumsodun Ok: I think a lot of people who look from the outside have misconceptions. They don’t see LGBTQ people in diverse public spheres. Historically, the LGBTQ community has not had space for true self-expression. When society thinks of us, a lot of contradictions come to mind, especially when it comes to upholding traditions.
The power of our work can transform the notion of being gay. It does not have to be contrary to cultural preservation. We want to show that it is an art form of compassion and courage. However, despite this I have to be honest when I create or strategise. I don’t do it to speak for any one. I speak from a place that is true to my own experiences. I don’t claim to be the voice for all LGBTQ people because I could never represent that many people with all their different values and experiences.
Good Times2: Do you feel that your fame has commoditised you in anyway? How do you feel about this?
Prumsodun Ok: I don’t think so; I won’t allow myself to be used as a commodity. When I was performing in Thailand, there was a really important professor who said don’t label yourself as a queer dance company – that my dancers represented true womanhood. He responded this way because we do not create a caricature of what it means to be gay. My art is bigger than just being a gay man or whatever other labels society has given me. The quality of the art and the purpose of the art are equally important. We don’t throw one thing away for another. If you want to create a space for yourself, you have to make space for everyone.
Good Times2: How has being a Cambodian refugee, born to parents in the diaspora, impacted your artistic style or expression?
Prumsodun Ok: I don’t think it’s possible to separate the art from the person or experience. I can’t say being a gay person or a refugee is more important than the other. I think every aspect of who I am plays into my art. It’s a privilege to bring those two worlds together.
I often think that I can be more responsible for my overall actions by being both American and Cambodian. This is clearly evident in my choreography. I think it’s a privilege to look at Khmer traditions from both perspectives – as an insider and outsider. This has given me the ability to reflect on music and how to teach, etc.
Good Times2: Does Khmer traditional dance allow for any spontaneity or is it more systematic?
Prumsodun Ok: When I am choreographing, there is a lot of spontaneity that can be inspired by so many things such as music, text, and so on. Spontaneity and structure are not exclusive of one another. No one has ever approached me saying ‘You are doing it wrong’. When they see the quality of the dancers and performances, our work explains itself.
Good Times2: Khmer traditional dance more often than not gets labelled as very feminine. Can you tell me how you see traditional dancing as also very masculine?
Prumsodun Ok: Well if you look through history and mythology there is Lok Ta Moni Eisey – the ultimate teacher spirit, the first human to receive knowledge of the arts in our tradition. And Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, both creates and destroys the universe in his cosmic dance. Although many people know the images of aspara dancers at Angkor, there are even more images of “dance” as exemplified by war scenes that are set in male bodies, not female. So, it’s not accurate to think that dance is female in nature.
Good Times2: Do you hope to change stereotypes about gay dancers?
Prumsodun Ok: There is a diversity of voice and needs. Our goal is just to be true to our experience and provide a path to inspire others to speak for themselves. It is not for us to become their voice or take away their voices or expressions.
Good Times2: Do different types of audiences impact how you perform? If so, how?
Prumsodun Ok: No. Both old and young Cambodians have seen us perform. We have a diversified audience and we never change how we perform. Our work is about sharing and offering our experiences. To adjust based on the audience would be demeaning to ourselves to play to someone else’s whims or expectations.
Good Times2: What are the misconceptions people have about you?
Prumsodun Ok: Since moving to Cambodia any misconceptions have changed. Because, when I was in America, I was the lone wolf from afar. Recently my TED Talk allowed people to see my love and knowledge of Khmer dance, history, and culture. I have had people comment on our videos to say stuff like, ‘I don’t like gay people but I appreciate you for sharing our culture’. While this is not the nicest thing to say, it does begin a conversation.
Good Times2: What and how did you end up doing a TED Talk on the magic of Khmer traditional dance?
Prumsodun Ok: I am a TED Senior Fellow and we are given a chance to propose a talk. I took the chance to apply about traditional dance. Normally, we are only given five minutes but when I handed in my outline they ended up giving me 10 minutes. The fellowship is a rigorous application process in order to be selected. I was selected first in 2011 and have since been made a Senior Fellow. As for my talk, ‘The Magic of Khmer Classical Dance,’ the Khmer word for art, ‘silpak,’ at its root it means magic, which is how I came up for the title. In Khmer the line between art, sciences, and magic is not so clear cut – it is all mixed together.
Good Times2: How has your life changed after your TED Talk went viral around Cambodia?
Prumsodun Ok: I think people are more aware of me now and I have more people who want to collaborate with me. But to be honest, I have not really changed as I still have my goals and feel like I am still the same person.
Good Times2: What ongoing projects and performances do you have lined up for 2019?
Prumsodun Ok: We preform every Saturday and Sunday at Java Café Creative in Tuol Tompung starting at 6:30pm. They have a small theater. We are also collaborating with an artist in Germany right now for an upcoming performance.
Good Times2: And I think everyone wants to know who or where you get your dance clothes made?
Prumsodun Ok: I design the costumes that we wear. The silks we use are bought at local markets. As for the jewelry, we work with artisans and that’s the same for our crowns and belts.