This article is based on an interview with Prum while he was in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center. He is an extraordinary dancer who began studying Cambodian classical dance when he was 16.
Rachel Cooper: How did you get started in Cambodian dance?
Prumsodun Ok: I have always loved dance. When I was 4 years old in Long Beach, California, I’d imitate dance from the local TV. The dancers were from the local Cambodian temple, not professional dancers; in fact they were pretty bad. They wore tinsel instead of flower garlands and cardboard crowns with sequins sewn on. Still there is something about art when the spirit is strong, even when it’s not done well. At four years old I felt that spirit of Cambodian dance in me. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I found a teacher. After having watched my sister’s classes, I finally asked if I could learn too, and I became quite serious about dance throughout high school.
RC: How did your family react to your decision to go into the arts as a profession?
PO: My parents were from the countryside and survived the genocide, the refugee camps, and now they live in inner city Long Beach. For them, life was a culture of survival and they were afraid to see me going into art. They even threatened to disown me, but I stayed with it. However, when I started my career in the arts it was not for dance. I went to San Francisco to study experimental filmmaking. The way we were taught Cambodian dance in the United States was not as an art form but as a way of learning your culture, and culture is associated with ethnic identity as opposed to philosophy or your approach to life. One day in 2008 I was editing in a tiny dark basement. It was 6:00 am, I hadn’t slept, and I thought: people are waking up, or making love, or getting their kids ready for school and I am here alone in a basement trying to find light. It was lonely and I missed the physicality of dance where I don’t need anything to make dance other than my body. I decided that was what I would do and returned to Los Angeles and from then on it was making dance, making dance, making dance. I am an interdisciplinary artist: I write, I design sound, I work with video. But really, the art form that informs me the most and gives spirit to my soul is classical Cambodian dance.
RC: Do you see your work as traditional or experimental? How do you think these terms apply to you?
PO: I have had the opportunity to perform on various experimental dance stages that my peers trained in classical and experimental dance have never had. The words that inspire me are from the French surreal poet René Daumal, using a term that I continue to contemplate: “the avant-garde in antiquity.” I’ve contemplated that term for a long time. I’m so over this idea of “new for new sake.” For me, it’s something I got from my filmmaking experience where my professor said, “experimental is not a product, experimental is an approach.” I can perform the oldest Cambodian classical dance and find a way to make it fresh, or bend and break within it, as long as the intention is clear.
For me there are three principles I try to follow. Something is experimental when: 1) it pushes you 2) it pushes the art form 3) it pushes society. I strive to hit all three in my work, no matter what I make. Whether it’s making a dance that uses traditional music, costuming, or dance that depicts gay love or marriage, as long as I’m pushing myself in these three ways I know I’m being true to myself and to my art. I actually don’t care what people call me, traditional or contemporary, as long as they see the value of what I do. I’m able to speak both languages.
RC: How does ethnic identity play into your understanding of yourself and your work?
PO: When I was young, being Cambodian-American was a struggle: you are never Cambodian enough nor American enough, you are pulled left and right at the same time. Now I feel being Cambodian-American is being a center, able to pool approaches, histories, mediums, and cultures, all unto myself. That richness is a source of strength and possibility that others don’t have.
RC: Is your work considered contemporary now that you are based in Cambodia?
PO: Living in Asia I sometimes feel there is a neocolonial reign that some of the cool contemporary curators think they have. For me, contemporary just means “of this time.” Time is layered: it is past, present, and future, all layered into now. I have my qualms with people who enforce what things should mean instead of being open to the spirit of the artist. When you start to label work as contemporary or traditional too narrowly, you shut things down and it can take on an oppressive nature.
RC: Can you say more about how these ideas of traditional and contemporary co-exist?
PO: This idea of the “avant-garde of antiquity” intrigues me. It's the idea of edge. Even if you are dancing a very old dance, how do you add the edge? The reason these dance forms are alive and passed on from one generation to the next is that they have a core; each generation must find the edge to sharpen, refine, push, and transform it. As someone who carries that tradition, I need to maintain that core, that spirit, that philosophy, that essence which is embodied in the form, but then push it out, sharpen an edge.
RC: Why did you decide to move to Cambodia?
PO: I initially went to Cambodia to develop my project called Beloved. I thought I would just be there one year. I asked my friend to help me find young gay men who wanted to learn classical dance and were open to trying new things. I thought he would find me probably one or two but when we had the auditions there were twelve who showed up, between the ages of 17 and 30. After a month and a half of training these young men in my living room, I looked at them and thought this looks like a real dance company; Cambodia’s first gay dance company just formed in my living room. It’s been a journey ever since. After my TED Talk the online comments in Cambodian were very interesting. One stated, “I don’t think there should be third or fourth genders, but I can see that Prum is sharing our culture with the world and this is an effort where we should all support each other in solidarity.” It’s touching this real world. When I was performing in Los Angeles in experimental spaces it was too safe, it left up the walls of an elitist space. I feel very thankful that I see my work now as touching society; I think it is the role of artists to transform society. Over half of Cambodia is under 35 years old. People are looking for things that are new, that are original.
RC: What has the reception been to your work in Cambodia?
PO: Our company had its debut in Cambodia a year ago. We opened the theater an hour before the concert was to start and within minutes it was totally packed. The makeup of the audience really mirrored the population of Phnom Penh. Lots of young people, students, artists, dancers, non-artists, 18-25 year olds, expats, older Cambodians, and parents of my dancers. The parents were seeing their kids on stage for the first time. Since this is a gay dance company it makes a point. I’m speaking to real people - grandma, grandpa, parents, kids - everyone is there. In Los Angeles, it was just artists’ friends and other artists. I was recently featured in a broadcast video as part of an anti-rape campaign in Cambodia. I was with major popular celebrities from film and music. I’m a dancer and that line between the popular sphere and the fine arts context was blurred, which I think is good. Now after my TED Talk my landlord has a new respect for me. He said, “Wow, I saw your TED Talk and I turned on the TV and I saw you on the news today.” This, from an elderly Cambodian person. I feel my art helps to reach and transform society broadly and it is exactly what I want to do.
Visit Prum's Residency Page
Rachel Cooper has extensive experience in the presentation of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian-American performing arts and the development of interdisciplinary programs. She has presented over 500 performances at the Asia Society and venues across the U.S. She has worked with Cambodian artists since 1995 and co-organized Dance the Spirit of Cambodia. She serves on the Board of Cambodian Living Arts. Cooper was awarded a Best Practices Award for Cultural Diplomacy, Manhattan Borough Award for excellence in preserving the diversity of New York, Dawson Award for Sustained Achievement in Performing Arts Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and an Isadora Duncan Award for the Festival of Indonesia. She did her graduate work in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. Ms. Cooper is the co-founder and former director of the San Francisco-based Balinese music and dance company, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which has been presenting the arts of Bali in the United States since 1979.