Prumsodun Ok, a Cambodian-American born to refugee parents, knew he wanted to be an “apsara” dancer from the age of 4, when he was entranced by a performance captured on one of his family’s home movies.
No matter that the dance dated back to the seventh century, or that traditionally apsaras were beautiful, heaven-born females, destined to entertain gods and kings at the Angkor temples in the ancient Khmer Empire, modern-day Cambodia. Ok focused on the stylized grace of the dancing and thought little about the fact that the dancers were women, because he was a kid and he had a dream.
But he put that on hold for 12 years.
Growing up in Long Beach, California, home to 20,000 Khmer immigrants, Ok was bullied because he was “different.” He recalls being branded as gay and “kteu” — Thai or Cambodian slang for someone who is born male but acts or looks female — when he was 5. That name calling led him to self-identify as gay in his teens.
“I don’t know when I knew,” Ok said about realizing that he was gay, “but I can say that I only became comfortable in my latter years of high school. This is me, this is who I am, and no one can change that or take that away from me.”
That was about the time when, after years of watching his younger sister practice traditional Khmer dances, that he found the courage to approach her dance master.
A rising star among dance students
“I really love dance. Can you please teach me?” Ok pleaded, and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro agreed. Teenager Ok quickly became a rising star at her Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, which is affiliated with an arts ensemble in Cambodia.
The school, founded by Shapiro, teaches traditional arts to Cambodian-Americans. Shapiro was one of the first graduates from Phnom Penh’s School of Fine Arts after the fall of the Pol Pot regime and is revered as one of Cambodia’s leading contemporary dance choreographers.
In 2015, Ok, now 30, moved to Cambodia and established Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA, the country’s first gay dance company. Male dancers ages 18 to 24 fill roles traditionally performed by women. The troupe stages Khmer classical dances as well as new works that Ok creates.
“What I’m doing is drawing from our traditions and using these traditions in ways that people could never imagine to create a more inclusive and compassionate and just Cambodia,” he said.
Coming from “a long tradition of people who are in the service of society … of humanity,” Ok said he has learned “that service is not just about being comfortable: those who are comfortable are not always necessarily right.”
Cambodian society’s tolerance
Srun Srorn, 36, the founder of CamASEAN and a human rights activist, told VOA Khmer that while the majority of LGBTQ Cambodians are marginalized and discriminated against, society is more tolerant of their role in the arts.
Ok’s group “is more professional, so I think it will bring the positive [response] from the community,” Srorn said. “So far, this part of the art — performing — is not getting any negative reaction from the public.
Ok says his role as a teacher of dance goes beyond the classroom.
“Getting them to learn how to see, getting them to have the courage to ask questions, getting them to have the bravery to explore things on their own,” he said. “Those are the most essential things that a teacher of any art form, or discipline or medium, needs to inspire in their students.”
Choung Veasna, 19, of Phnom Penh, says Ok gave him confidence: “I’ve learned from my teacher that no matter what people say about you, it doesn’t matter.”
Tes Sokhon, 24, from Pailin province, the oldest dancer in the group, says his teacher is inspiring.
“He’s more than my idol,” Sokhon said. “He’s the first teacher to train me in classical dance. He provides us with income and makes our lives better.”
‘Combination of beauty and tradition’
The troupe’s passion for classical Khmer dance has not gone unnoticed.
Craig Dodge, director of sales and marketing at Phare, the Cambodian Circus performance troupe in Siem Reap, said: “When I watched the video on their homepage and heard the young men talk about what performing has meant to them, their identity and their self-esteem, it made me cry.”
Courtesy Prumsodun Ok and NATYARSA
Dodge worked with Ok to make the troupe’s Siem Reap debut in Cambodia’s artistic center a reality, by tapping into the city’s strong sense of community, which he describes as “the perfect place for nurturing and presenting traditional and new Cambodian creative expression.”
Resident Darryl Collins, an art historian, is providing the venue without charge because “the combination of beautiful and traditional 100-year-old Khmer houses with an elegant contemporary form of classical dance seemed an exciting collaboration.”
Other Siem Reap businesses are pitching in with free accommodations, transportation, security and are helping stage the performances July 14 and 15.
Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA is scheduled to perform three dances: PRUM x POP, ranging from Khmer classical dance to pop music; Beloved, which explores a 13th century Khmer king’s love for his land; and Robam Santhyea Vehea, a tale of love and marriage of two men.
Ok hopes an open-minded audience will see the performance as a measure of how LGBTQ people can create art in their communities.
“I want the company to be a model for compassion, for bravery, for beauty,” he said.