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How Cambodia’s 1st all-male, gay dance company is preserving tradition

In 2015, artist Prumsodun Ok formed Cambodia’s first all-male and gay-identified Khmer dance company -- in his living room. Part of his mission was to support the revival of an art form all but destroyed by the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Ok told his dancers they would need to be brave in order to give voice to a marginalized community. He shares his brief but spectacular take on honoring tradition.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: bringing ancient traditions alive in a new light.

    Artist Prumsodun Ok is taking a form of dance that dates back to performances solely for royalty in Cambodia. His Khmer dance company is transforming that classical style by using an all-male and openly gay group to showcase the art to the public.

    He now gives his Brief But Spectacular take on this unique tradition. It's also part of our Canvas series.

  • Prumsodun Ok:

    So, when you look at Khmer classical dance, there are a lot of curves in our art form. So we actually train our hands. We bend them back like this. And we have four primary hand gestures that we use.

    This is — represents a tree. That tree is going to grow and then it'll have leaves. After it has leaves, it's going to have flowers. And after it has flowers, it's going to have fruit. That fruit is going to drop, and a new tree will grow.

    And so in those four gestures are the cycle of life.

    We use those four same gestures to illustrate sadness, love, anger, pain, joy, pride. The art form was nearly destroyed in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge took over. In a period of less than four years, 90 percent of Khmer dance artists lost their lives, during a time in which an entire third of Cambodia's population perished through disease, overwork, starvation, and execution.

    My teacher's teachers were instrumental in reviving the art form from the ashes of war and genocide.

    When I think about, what is my role to this tradition that was nearly lost, I have a responsibility to offer my fullest self, my realities as a gay man, someone born and raised in the diaspora, in and of and between many different worlds.

    I didn't go to Cambodia with the intention of starting Cambodia's first gay dance company. I had plans to move to Mexico City. Then I got a fellowship to work with all young male gay dancers.

    And when I got to Cambodia, my friends, who are the leading dance artists in Cambodia, they would say, Prum, can you stay here? You know, the country needs you. The art form needs you. And I would say, no, because everywhere I looked around me, I saw so much sadness.

    After a month-and-a-half of training these young men, I sat down and I watched them. And I said, oh, my God, they look like a real company. And, oh, my God, Cambodia's first gay dance company just formed in my living room.

    To call the company, like, a gay dance company is a very brave and very forward thing. Before I auditioned the dancers, I told them: I need brave people. You are going to go on stage and you are going to represent a community that doesn't have a voice oftentimes.

    My name is Prumsodun Ok, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on honoring your traditions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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