Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Challenging Discrimination Through a Modern Take on Traditional Dance

Recently at the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh the Natyarasa Dance Company – Cambodia’s first all-gay all-male dance troupe – performed interpretations of classical Khmer dance.

Founded by Cambodian-American dancer Prumsodun Ok, Natyarasa seeks to empower young gay men to live with pride, independence, and courage. In addition, as SBS writer Holly Robertson notes, it is hoped that the success of Natyarasa will create a ripple effect through Cambodian society, one which remains, in many ways, discriminatory against LGBTQI+ people.

Following, with added images and links, is an excerpt from Robertson's June 21 online article about the Natyarasa Dance Company.


With hypnotic precision, the dancers move gracefully across the floor, their backs arched and fingers curved backwards in the style typical of Khmer classical dance.

Less typical, however, is that all the dancers are men. In Cambodia, traditional dance – seen as a “mirror of the heavens” performed by near-divine beings – has long been dominated by women.

Natyarasa, a new Cambodian dance company made up entirely of gay men, is changing that.

Formed by Khmer-American choreographer and artist Prumsodun Ok, the company had its stage debut in Phnom Penh late last year.

Ok grew up in Long Beach, California, the son of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge. He recalls falling in love with traditional dance as a small boy, while watching videos of amateur performances.

“The Khmer community in the States was still in its early stages,” he tells SBS at a rehearsal, “so instead of the beautiful crowns that we wear today they had cardboard [hats] with sequins sewn into them. And instead of flower garlands, they had tinsel.”

Despite the inexpert costuming, Ok says, the “beauty and the spirit of the art form” shone through. He began attending classes with renowned Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro as a teenager – after a year of sitting at the sidelines watching his sisters.

After cementing his reputation as dancer with his one-man reinterpretations of Khmer classics, the 30-year-old is passing on his knowledge to the next generation of male dancers.

While a small number of roles in the Khmer tradition are typically played by men, such as monkeys, Natyarasa is challenging gender norms by taking on characters long reserved for women.

Above: Choreographer Prumsodun Ok adjusts gestures and movements of his dancers during a rehearsal – Siem Reap, Cambodia, July 14, 2017. (Photo: Tom Whittaker)

“We’re giving this tradition that is the highest symbol of Cambodian identity new character, new approaches, and new possibility to revive itself and to go to new heights,” says Ok.

Equally important, he says, is “giving these young gay men a platform to see themselves in the national dialogue”.

Although same-sex relations are not illegal in Cambodia, there is no legislation that enshrines the rights of LGBT+ people nor are there laws to protect against discrimination.

According to prominent LGBT+ rights activist Srun Srorn, discrimination occurs in key areas such as access to health, education and employment.

But the biggest issues, Srorn says, manifest within the family unit: forced marriages, attempts to ‘cure’ LGBT+ children using traditional healers or Buddhist clergymen, outright rejection and violence are widespread.

“None of the LGBT+ people I met have been accepted [by their families] in the beginning, when coming out,” he says.

Cambodian society places a high value on the institution of marriage and on having children, and many parents fear that their LGBT+ children will not be able to provide for them later in life.

So as well as offering comprehensive training and emotional support to the dancers, Ok pays them a living wage, with the four core members receiving $400 a month – well above Cambodia’s minimum monthly wage of $153.

“What I want to do is empower these young men to live with pride and freedom and independence and courage,” says Ok, adding that he hopes their success will create a ripple effect through society.

Gay Apsaras from Kris Janssens on Vimeo.

Related Off-site Links:
Meet Cambodia’s First LGBTQ Dance Company – Kevin Truong (NBC News, April 3, 2017).
Ambitious Cambodian Dance Troupe Honors Artistic Traditions in New Ways – Manilene Ek (VOA News, July 2, 2017).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Purpose of Art
Art and Resistance
The Potential of Art and the Limits of Orthodoxy to Connect Us to the Sacred
The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life
Not Whether We Dance, But How
Desert Dancer: A Story That Matters
Ahmad Joudeh: Dancing for Peace
The Dancer and the Dance
The Soul of a Dancer

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