The dancers glide across the stage, backs arched, elbows curved, fingers trembling, a vision of elegance and grace. They are performing a version of robam kbach boran, the national dance that’s seen as one of Cambodia’s most important symbols of national identity.
But the dance performed last weekend at Phnom Penh’s Department of Performing Arts is different from other traditional Khmer dance performances for one key reason: the dancers are men executing a dance traditionally dominated by women.
Prumsodun Ok is a Khmer-American interdisciplinary performance artist and dancer who arrived in Cambodia in 2008 to study Khmer dance. Over the past eight years, he’s become a Khmer cultural icon for his work reviving the role of men in traditional dance. Natyarasa, his all-male, all-gay dance troupe, is the first of its kind in modern-day Cambodia.
“In the early era, there were many depictions of male dancers,” Ok tells the packed auditorium as he switches effortlessly between Khmer and English. “They were kings, nobility and temple servants alike.”
But women eventually took on both male and female roles. It didn’t matter whether they were playing male demons or female demons – all were played by women, Ok says.
It’s unclear when men lost their prominent position in robam kbach boran, but Ok suspects it was around the time when King Ang Duong began separating male and female dancers.
“When he returned from Bangkok [in 1843], he was really the one who began the modern era of Khmer dance,” he says. “So he changed the costuming and he separated the troupes so they were either all male or all female and could perform repertoires without relying on each other.”
Prior to that, it’s unclear what relationship male and female classical dancers had with one another, but men eventually stopped performing the national dance.“In classical dance, in the modern tradition, men play monkey roles, they play aesthetics, or sometimes horses. And then there is khol, an all-male masked dance drama,” Ok says.
Ok finishes his discourse and slips behind the curtains, pulling off his green velvet jacket as he traverses the stage. The lights are dimmed and the dancers emerge. For the next half hour, the audience is treated to a gender-bending masterpiece filled with stunningly beautiful male dancers who embody femininity in a groundbreaking way.
The four short choreographies include two dances to traditional Khmer music and two to contemporary pop. Some of the dances depict love between two men, while others allowed the dancers to move fluidly between gender roles and change from playing men to women from one movement to the next.
When asked about his choice of depicting love songs, Ok says it is a radical statement about love and a questioning of which human bodies are permitted to make a mark on history.
“I believe that love produces the highest art,” Ok says. “We live in a world where LGBT people are beaten, burned, killed. We dancers are offering our personal histories… It’s one part gesture of protest and one part celebration.”
Ok is aware that his dance is a source of controversy, and he’s received threats of violence because of his work. Ultimately, he says, his dance is at the intersection of art and human dignity, and aims to amplify voices that often go unheard. For that reason, he’s unconcerned with any criticism.
“If you expect for everyone to love you, then it means you’re probably not doing something right,” he says with a laugh. “When you’re making change, there is always going to be resistance.”
Ok felt that resistance among his own dancers during the initial phases of the recruitment process for his troupe. But over the months, the dancers grew to trust him. Eventually they built a community around their love for dance.
The dancers are all young Khmer men in their late teens and early twenties. Some have been studying dance for over a decade.
Reflecting the country’s young demographic, most of the audience members are in the same age range as the dancers. Some are fans of Ok’s work and have followed him online for years.
Others were alerted to the event by their local art school and sauntered over after class. But all of them were receptive to the way the dancers challenge traditional gender norms, and clapped enthusiastically for both the performance and Ok’s talk.
For Ok, the night is his big debut in front of a Cambodian audience, which he believes is becoming more accepting and tolerant with time.
“This talk was a very big step for me,” he says. “For a general audience to hear me speak about my work for the first time in Khmer and English, to have them listen to me talk about Khmer dance history when other Cambodians aren’t talking about that, for them to see the dancers and the quality of the work, I think that’s a really big deal.”