Healing and Inspiration: 10 Years of Khmer Arts


Dancers of the Khmer Arts Ensemble performs Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala. Photo: Anders Jiras.

On Saturday, October 13th, the Long Beach Museum of Art will host Khmer Arts’ 10th anniversary celebration with a performance of the venerated dance ritual, Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala. The dance is being performed by two groups, both under the leadership of internationally celebrated dance teacher and choreographer, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro.

Khmer Arts has two wings: The Khmer Arts Ensemble, from Cambodia—which primarily focuses on the original work of Shapiro— and The Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach, that works with members of the local Khmer community and provides classical dance training.

Prumsodun Ok has been given the role of Associate Artistic Director for Khmer Arts Academy. Ok has been studying with Shapiro for nearly 10 years, and has his own amazing professional career as a dancer. He also serves on the board of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and taught grass-roots community journalism to local youth as part of VoiceWaves.

“I began my training with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro at the Khmer Arts Academy at the age of 16,” Ok said. “Now, nine years later, the organization has grown into a transnational dance organization that is dual-based in Cambodia and Long Beach. I have been named as the first Associate Artistic Director, which is pretty significant given that I am a male practitioner of roles performed by women, and trained mostly in the diaspora. For Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala, and for much of the upcoming anniversary performance, I have been acting as the artistic and logistical eye with guidance from my teacher Sophiline.”

The Academy in Long Beach has steadily expanded over the last decade.

“The Khmer Arts Academy serves approximately forty students at our studio. It used to just be that we only had students from Long Beach, but today we have people driving for classes from Greater Long Beach and even San Diego. I can attribute this to the quaility of programs that we have developed.

“Our monthly Salon Series brought free presentations of dance, music, film, and lecture demonstrations to our studio that served to make traditional performing arts accessible. Now, we are touring our Salons all over California.

“We had artists-in-residence from Cambodia. And we try and expose our students to as many different cultures, ideas, and traditions as well. For example, I recently launched a Visiting Artist Series in which artists trained in different forms provide a workshop for our students. I have been ever so grateful to these artists who do so at no cost, and they have shared everything from opera to samba music, West African dance to yoga, mime to authentic movement.

“We’ve been getting a big influx of new students — both old and young — but I do want to say that we have a good crop of dancers who have been training for 8 years or more. And, this is the first time in which the number of adults — some who are older than me — equal the number of high school youth in our program.

“Khmer classical dance is an art form that was developed as a prayer in movement for the deliverance of fertility, prosperity, and well-being. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of nearly 90 percent of dancers, who perished with an entire third of Cambodia’s population through starvation, overwork, disease, and execution. My teacher’s teachers were responsible for rebuilding the tradition, and the spirit of their people.

“Now, thirty or so years after this violent regime, Khmer classical dance artists — and Cambodia — is still rebuilding. As someone who is an inheritor of this legacy of loss, I have come to understand that I must transform it into a legacy of rebuilding that pushes for new heights.”

While teaching classical Khmer dance traditions is important, Ok feels that the students want, and get, far more.

“Most of the students who come to rehearse with me are very much in love with the art form. They show up to cass early. They want to stay late. We learn to dance, we learn to teach, we learn to sing, we learn to be good people through the art form. I think what’s important is getting the students to see how this art form has meaning and significance in their contemporary lives, and getting them to think about it not as a cultural heirloom but, rather, a tool and vocabulary with which to question, explore, and shape the world around them.”

Ok explains that Shapiro’s work as a choreographer was, in a small way, controversial.

“After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, practitioners pursued a highly preservationist approach to keep the art form alive. It was their thought that so much had been lost, the art form was so vulnerable, that it could not afford to have any ideas from outside veer it off its path of reconstruction. Consequently, the art form started to become static and unimaginative.

“Sophiline was pivotal in the idea of preserving through innovation, creating new works that maintain the spirit of Khmer dance yet expands its relevance, function, and possibilities. For example, Samritechak — an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello — was choreographed in the traditional style to address the responsibilities of a leader, something which none of the Khmer Rouge leaders seemed to consider. Seasons of Migration used the form to explore issues of culture shock and, more recently, in works such as Munkul Lokey (set to John Zorn’s lush Shir Ha-Shirim), she has been creating what she calls robam boran chhnay or neo-classical dances that experiment with Khmer classical dance’s formal qualities.

“We are all trying to push the art form to the highest that it can be. Some of us teach, some sing, some of us dance, some of us play music, some of us make new work. We all take different approaches, different paths, but we are all trying to reach the same peak of a single mountain.”

Shapiro’s Khmer Arts Ensemble, a troupe of 25 dancers and musicians, has performed all over the world. The group’s role as an internationally recognized cultural resourse has had far reaching impacts within Cambodia.

“Sophiline is nurturing a new generation of leaders. She is empowering young women by giving them living wages. She is really shaping and molding Cambodia’s artistic and cultural landscape through her ideas as an artist. She is raising Cambodia’s cultural profile on the international stage.”

Ok explained that the dance being performed at the museum this weekend is one of the oldest and most sacred works of the Khmer classical dance canon.

“In it, rivaling students of a powerful hermit give life to lightning and thunder. For centuries, this dance has been performed in the elaborate buong suong ritual to pray for the deliverance of rain, which means fertility of the land and prosperity of the people in agricultural societies such as Cambodia. We will perform this drama in sampeah kru — prayer to the teachers — ritual at the LBMA, in the round as is done in the palaces and sacred spaces of Cambodia.

“This ritual is significant in that it allows for young dancers to establish their place within a history and lineage that is over 1,000 years old. It is a moment in which the past and present of tradition marry one another, revealing before the altar and audience its future. Given Cambodia’s violent history, this performance acts as a testament to the resilience of beauty in the shadow of genocide, loss, and trauma.

“Furthermore, this drama is important in our day, at a time when women’s rights are being encroached upon, as it is an example of a woman who triumphs in a masculine universe. It is about the passage of knowledge and leadership, something that I myself — freshly named Associate Artistic Director — can take to heart.”

Ok began dancing, just for fun, when he was four years old.

“I was only imitating movements off of a TV screen (in my sister’s red dress). Dance has always been with me, but I did not get proper training until I was 16.

“When dancers in Cambodia first meet me, they say that I have ‘nisay.’ Literally, this term means ‘support’ as in the support of your teachers. Or in this case, the support of the spirit teachers—the teachers who are no longer living but watch over the tradition. On an everyday term though, nisay is something like a fated truth. You were meant to do it. It is your fate.”

“In ancient days, dancers were dedicated to temples as offerings. Male dancers were included in this. However, in its more recent history, Khmer classical dance became an all-female art form. In the 1950s, Queen Kossamak Nearyrath decided that men would perform as monkeys due to the acrobatic athleticism that it required. The other three major roles — male, female, and demon roles — are all played by women. And I happened to train in the latter three.

“People were very supportive. They saw how much I loved the dance. And they saw how much skill and potential I demonstrated. The only times I have met resistance were in my capacities as a leader. Some people haven’t been too happy about the fact that I am gay. They would never say anything to me directly, but the people I love and trust have told me so. Like it or not, they had better get used to it. I’m here to stay. My students love me. My teacher loves me. And the dance has chosen me.”

With all the success that Khmer Arts has achieved in the last 10 years, Ok still sees many opportunities.

“We need to ring in a new decade of stronger relationships and collaborations. We need to nurture a new generation of young artists, not just peope who love dance, but artists such as myself who travel between Cambodia and Long Beach. We need to develop a culture of caretakers who will take care of the art form. If you can’t dance, sing. If you can’t sing, put people into costumes. If you can’t put people into costumes, write grants. If you can’t write grants, donate. If you can, do any and more than one of these things at the same time. We need to get our students and community to understand the role that they can and must play in taking care of this powerful art form, an art form that acts as a means of healing and inspiration. Celebration is not enough.”

Although admission to the performance is free, seating is very limited, so reservations are required. Reservations can be made through BrownPaperTickets.com. You will not be admitted without a reservation.

The Long Beach Museum of Art is located at 2300 East Ocean Boulevard. Parking is free, but limited, so plan to arrive early. Attendees are encouraged to bring mats and blankets to sit comfortably on the grass. Doors open at 10:15 AM, and the performance will begin at 11 AM and end at 1 PM.

Learn more about the Khmer Arts Academy. 

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