I never feel quite so Western as in those moments when I'm confronted with Asian modes of performance.
So it's only fitting that the second night of OUTsider Festival in Austin featured a performance by Prumsodun Ok, a practitioner of Cambodia's Khmer classical dance. I think it's important to be aware of and claim those moments when we feel like an outsider within our own subcultures, and tonight was such a moment for me.
Ok came forward in a red loincloth and matching lipstick, first making an offering of fruit and incense to the gods. He brought forth an invocation in a language I could not understand, yet his reverence was palpable and the room was silent but for his voice.
After the sacrificial offering was complete, he transitioned into a dance the precision of which I've never before seen. Slow, methodical movements, intricate gestures, and so much more flexibility and grace than my own body would be capable of reproducing. The dance was beautiful, yet almost painfully slow to a Western aesthetic. All I could think was that I wished I understood what it meant.
Little did I know, I was in luck! After the introductory dance, Ok moved into a series of slides and videos, detailing both the history of Khmer classical dance and the trajectory of his own work for the audience. Ok described the idea of sacred choreography, and the role of the dancer (or artist in general) as a bridge between heaven and earth in Cambodian culture.
He explained about the Cambodian history of religious animism—how the serpentine movements of Khmer classical dance are meant to invoke the spirit of life-giving water. Speaking of the internal, muted nature of Khmer classical dance compared to Western forms like modern dance, Ok explained, “We are dancing for the gods and ancestor spirits. They are around us and in us all the time. There is no need to jump around.”
Ok went on to detail the 1970s genocide which almost wiped out Khmer classical dance forever. Ok spoke of his own work to rebuild and re-envision Khmer classical dance as a gesture of both protest and celebration.
Ok said he was brought up to think of Khmer classical dance as culture, or as part of an ethnic identity, rather than as an art form. He admitted that it wasn't until he went to art school for film that he thought of applying the same principles to his dance practice. “I don't really think about race,” Ok said of his work. “Well, I think about race. But it's not the thing that moves me as an artist. I see myself as a child of the world. I feel like to carve a place for myself, I have to carve a place for everybody else.”
After a series of videos of his own recent projects, Ok ended with a live performance of his most recent work-in-progress. Entitled “Beloved,” it reflects on the tantric history of ritual lovemaking in Khmer classical dance, revisioned through the bodies of gay men.
I am always somewhat envious of the deep spiritual roots of many performance practices in the East, and Khmer classical dance is no exception. Ok spoke of art as both a gift given to humans to help them find truth and transcendence, and as a tool for societal transformation.
“We're so blinded by the idea of progress,” Ok explained, arguing that moving deeper into a practice can be as – if not more – beneficial than attempting to bring together a multitude of different styles. “No matter what you do, if it's not beautiful, it's not beautiful,” he emphasized. “It's not about what medium you practice, or where you come from, or your race. Are you alive on stage? That's what people want to see.”
Ok also spoke of his own journey to Khmer classical dance, an art form which is traditionally dominated by women in Cambodian culture. Ok said he imitated the movements he saw in film from an early age, but it wasn't until his younger sisters began attending dance class that he worked up the courage to ask for training of his own.
“I sat and watched for a year before asking my teacher to teach me,” he remembered. “After one lesson she was very excited and within a month I was performing. A lot of artists trained in traditional art forms and innovating don't get the same kind of support,” Ok continued. “It's one of the inequities of the art world.”
This article was originally published by The Horn on 02-20-15.