Understanding One’s Position Within Traditional Dance: An Apprenticeship in Cambodian Classical Dance
In the middle of a warehouse district in Long Beach, California, is a single door that leads back into a wonderfully vibrant space with photos, flags, sculptures, and people that pay tribute to the rich history and traditions of Cambodia. It is in this location, the Khmer Arts Academy dance studio, that Prumsodun Ok works with much commitment with his younger sister and apprentice Khannia Ok, enhancing her skills as a soloist of Cambodian classical dance. Prumsodun directs Khannia with empowering suggestions, "make yourself look really strong and proud," while she moves slowly yet elegantly from one picturesque pose to another, utilizing every muscle in her body. He guides each movement she takes, extending her wrist and hand, pulling her feet and offering evocative metaphors of emotion to embody, which provides underlying meaning and a personal relationship to the dance.
Prumsodun Ok, master artist in ACTA's Apprenticeship Program in 2011, extends from an important lineage of Cambodian classical dance, having worked with master artists such as Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, Penh Yom, and Charya Burt. Understanding his location as a male participant within a predominantly female traditional practice, Ok worked intensively to learn beyond male roles, becoming accomplished in female and demonic roles within this genre. Having achieved this, Ok offers a holistic perspective when teaching, choreographing, and performing. The way he approaches Cambodian classical dance "is really looking at the form in a larger artistic context." This is influenced by his participation in other art forms he has studied, such as Brazilian samba and most importantly experimental filmmaking. As a choreographer, Ok also works in performance art in which he deals with contemporary issues such as sexuality or ideas that challenge "the norm." Concurrently this work is highly influenced by his background in Cambodian traditions. He shares that he strives to create work that will stand the test of time as Cambodian classical dance has; for that reason, when he teaches and works in the traditional form he is "interested in passing on the art form in the highest form of integrity technically, emotionally, spiritually." In thinking about dance in general, Ok is invested in the art as a means of communication that goes beyond notions of identity stating that "in the specificity of this (Cambodian classical dance) art form is the universal human experience," a lesson in which he hopes to share with Khannia and other students.