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From left: Ok, Sao Phirom, Sot Sovanndy and Chao Socheata
From left: Ok, Sao Phirom, Sot Sovanndy and Chao Socheata Eli Meixler

Ancient dance, styled by the new generation

A re-creation of a centuries-old seduction story is among three new dance performances being unveiled tonight

While choreographing his new piece, Prumsodun Ok seized on something missing from the world of ancient myth and legend that traditionally inspires Cambodian dance: gay men.

Dancers rehearse Phob
Dancers rehearse Phob Eli Meixler

The US-born dancer and choreographer, whose parents are Cambodian, has reinterpreted the 1,000-year-old tale of a mighty King and a serpent woman as an intense one-man show.

“When you look at Khmer classical dance, it is really a mirror of heaven . . . So if there is no image of gay men or LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people there, it means that we don’t exist,” Ok said.

“That means that we’re invisible, that people can abuse us and discriminate against us, the way that people do all over the world.”

Titled Beloved, the performance is one of three being unveiled tonight as part of the Tompeang Snong Russey dance recital presented by Sophiline Arts Ensemble (formerly Khmer Arts Ensemble).

A Phob dress rehearsal
A Phob dress rehearsal. JOHN SHAPIRO

The dance, to be performed at the ensemble’s Angkorian-style Takhmao theatre, tells the story of an ancient Cambodian king who each night climbs to the top of a temple to seduce a serpent woman as part of an elaborate ritual.

If she did not appear, it was taken as a dire warning of the king’s imminent death, and if the king did not go, his lands would be cursed with disease and famine, Ok explained.

With the full piece yet to be completed, Ok will perform an excerpt of the opening scene – an intense sequence that sees him move slowly across the stage, contorting his body to mimic the serpent woman bathing, accompanied by the trickling sounds of water and sensuous voice-overs.

He said he hoped the dance would be a show of strength for Cambodia’s LGBT community.

Choreographer and dancer Prumsodun Ok
Choreographer and dancer Prumsodun Ok. JOHN SHAPIRO

“Rechoreographing, stretching, and opening up in the dance hopefully will open things up in society as well,” said the 27-year-old dancer, who is based in Long Beach, California.

Tonight’s recital will also feature the premieres of two other dances created by members of the ensemble.

In English, Tompeang Snong Russey roughly translates as “the bamboo shoot is arriving to replace the bamboo”, said Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who is the artistic director and co-founder of Sophiline Arts Ensemble.

“So for this, we are talking about preparing the younger generation for the future,” she added.

Chao Socheata, associate artistic director of the troupe, choreographed Phob, or “womb”, with the intention of telling the story of orphans living rough.

“I am exploring the violence that occurs in families, the carelessness of parents and how sometimes that weight is thrown upon the children,” she said.

A performance of Robam Virayeak.
A performance of Robam Virayeak. JOHN SHAPIRO

The final piece in the recital is the work of five members of the ensemble – a militaristic dance called Robam Virayeak.

Through a classical Cambodian dance, the girls enact a battle of human spirits.

Sot Sovanndy, a co-choreographer of the piece, said that the dance attempts to explore the obstacles in life through symbolic demons/giants.

“No matter what obstacles you overcome, there are always going to be more coming your way,” she said.

Tompeang Snong Russey is on tonight (Saturday, August 6) at the Khmer Arts theatre in Takhmao on Street 115. Tickets are $2.50 and are available at the door. A round-trip bus service leaves from Phnom Penh Centre at 6:15pm and costs an additional $2.50.

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