Performing arts

Khmer performers emerge from the pandemic with renewed purpose

As traditional Khmer arts struggle with the loss of tourism dollars, artists see Cambodia’s reopening as a chance for revival and vital industry change

November 22, 2021
Khmer performers emerge from the pandemic with renewed purpose
Prumsodun Ok, founder and artistic director of Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA, adjusts Morn Sopharoth’s fingers during a dance rehearsal. Photo: Anton L. Delgado

Pacing past rows of dancers, Prumsodun Ok’s feet fell to the beat of trak toch, a traditional Khmer melody used when a character displays supernatural powers.

Pausing by each student, Ok redirected hips, readjusted heads and reformed hands. While a surgical mask obscured most of his face, there was an intensity to Ok’s gaze none of his students wanted to meet.

Covid-19 quarantine restrictions were lifted earlier this month for vaccinated travellers to Cambodia. In the weeks leading up to the reopening, Ok focused on preparing his dance company to give a flawless first performance.

“The pandemic has really disrupted our activities because our lack of performances aren’t just a loss of revenue, but a missed opportunity to connect with people,” said Ok, founder and artistic director of Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA, the Kingdom’s first gay dance company.

“I don’t know when things will open up in a way where there will be enough tourists in Cambodia for us to perform publicly,” he said. “But I am working on making sure that when that moment does come we are able to remerge with a big bang.”

Before the pandemic, the Kingdom welcomed millions of guests each year and the tourism dollars funded the cultural sector of the industry, which over the last two years has seen artists and organisations struggle to preserve ancient, traditional arts.

“The artistic and cultural world in Cambodia has suffered tremendously. I hope we can keep this talent alive through this pandemic,” said Phloeun Prim, executive director of Cambodian Living Arts. “Very sadly, we are used to traumatic experiences. We almost lost our cultural identity because of the Cambodian genocide, but if we survived that I hope we can survive this.”

As performers prepare to welcome back tourists, a new coalition of organisations has formed with plans to lobby for the prioritisation of cultural arts.

“We are in another different experience of struggle, only this time it is happening globally. But Cambodian culture and its artists are resilient,” Prim said. “I hope with a few new initiatives coming, Cambodia’s arts and cultural industry will be seen as a priority so that we can use the arts to redevelop the economy through tourism.”

Phloeun Prim, executive director of Cambodian Living Arts, in his office in Phnom Penh. Photo: Anton L. Delgado

The song ended abruptly when Ok pressed pause.

“Today, we were going through the motions. We weren’t dancers, nor were we dancing. We were just moving to music,” Ok said. “For the last two years, all we’ve done is survive. If we want to do more than that, if we want to thrive, post-pandemic then we really need to understand what we do and why we do it.”

Khmer classical dance is commonly performed as an all-female art form. The significance of men, especially gay men, practising the traditional art needs to be recognised by every dancer, he said.

“Calling ourselves a gay dance company is to mark a clear moment in time and space,” Ok said. “I don’t care what people call my work. I don’t care if they call it traditional, or contemporary or gay. The only thing that matters is that the work is beautiful and that the work is pushing my discipline, my tradition, my people, my world forward.”

Interview with tradition Khmer performing artists. Video: Anton L. Delgado

Intermittent lockdowns and occasional exposure scares meant the company could rarely rehearse in person. But despite the disruptions, Ok said he was incredibly fortunate to keep the company together throughout the pandemic.

“The way most artists live is so precarious already,” Ok said. “Being an artist in that type of world already, and then to have something like this happen, meant that we were among the firsts ones to be left behind.”

Tough times play a sad role in both Cambodian culture and traditional Khmer dance, he said.

“When thinking about Khmer dance you have to remember how this art was nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge,” Ok said. “While struggling with this pandemic, I thought about the strength of the artists that came before me. I thought about that time period and the time immediately afterwards and what it took to rebuild this art, this country and revive the spirit of our people.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Cambodian Living Arts had to cut funding to more than 60 of its artists, despite being founded with the goal of preserving the endangered performing art forms that survived the Khmer Rouge.

“It’s really difficult to see this happen. Our organisation started two decades ago and everything we have done was meant to prepare and build a sustainable cultural sector for these artists that we’ve nurtured,” Prim said. “It was heartbreaking to have to stop.”

Prim hopes now that the country is reopening to vaccinated travellers, the organisation will be able to reconnect with the dozens of traditional artists it has supported.

While struggling with this pandemic, I thought about the strength of the artists that came before me

“We see art as an essential part of Cambodian society,” Prim said. “We believe art is at the heart of a healthy, sustained, developing society and we want to support creativity and expression in Cambodia.”

While reopening could bring some artists back into the fold, he said reprioritising sectors of the tourism industry will be key to Cambodia’s overall recovery.

“Cambodia cannot compete only with the infrastructure of tourism: hotels, restaurants, tour operators. It needs the cultural sector to attract interest,” Prim said. “If you don’t have things like galleries, performances and culinary arts to propose an interesting destination to tourists, what are you trying to sell to the world?”

Bordering countries with robust tourism industries, Prim said Cambodia’s culture will be critical to keeping tourists in the Kingdom for more than just a few days to visit Angkor Wat.

“The two main countries that drove tourists [to the region] are Thailand, a huge tourism industry there, and Vietnam. Cambodia was in between,” Prim said. “Cambodia has been a new destination in Southeast Asia over the last decade [and it] has so much to offer in terms of diversity of destination and the cultural landscape is very interesting because it’s very rooted in its traditions.”

Prumsodun Ok, founder and artistic director of Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA, rehearses a dance with Morn Sopharoth. Photo: Anton L. Delgado

A layer of dust covered the surfaces underneath the performance tent at Phare, The Cambodian Circus. Huon Harb, the troupe’s director of operations, walked around the dimly lit tent, glancing at the rows of empty bleachers.

“All of these will be full soon,” Harb said as he sat on a workbench left on centre stage. “I know it.”

In preparation for what Harb hopes will be a steady flow of visitors now that Cambodia has loosened quarantine restrictions, the circus is refurbishing its grounds after nearly two years of inactivity.

“There is a lot of work to be done in just a few weeks. We need to revamp our entire facility to make sure it’s COVID safe and has all the right precautions,” Harb said. “We want to make sure we are ready for guests whenever the government decides to reopen.”

The circus grounds are alive with activity as staff check technical equipment and trim hedges.

Vouen Dy (right) and Chhoun Sothai (left) trim the hedges around Phare, The Cambodian Circus in preparation for Cambodia’s reopening to tourists. Photo: Anton L. Delgado

“Reopening will be like being reborn,” Harb said. “We want to put a smile on the face of every guest, artist and staff member.”

Huot Dara, chief executive officer of circus parent company Phare Performing Social Enterprise, said reopening needs to be followed by an overhaul of Cambodia’s tourism industry.

Cambodia needs to develop its own cultural governance system using tax dollars to support mechanisms for cultural and creative artists, without which there is less chance of developing local interest in cultural activities, he said.

“There is very limited local consumption of cultural products. Local audiences are not used to paying for cultural and creative experiences,” Dara said. “That meant the majority of the dollars going into cultural and creative consumption were from foreign buyers and tourists. That’s why when the pandemic hit it was so devastating.”

The Ministry of Economy and Finance has issued and renewed tax relief measures for the tourism industry in effort to aid businesses struggling to survive the pandemic. Although monthly tax exemptions and other relief measures only applied to restaurants, travel agencies, hotels and guesthouses.

“The cultural sector is a very important part of what makes Cambodia attractive to tourists. When the government considered how to support the tourism industry in the face of COVID, they left us out,” Dara said. “Cultural tourism is a very important element of destination marketing and destination experiences. Yet, we were not considered for government support.”

Masanori Nagaoka, a culture specialist for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said the “new normal on the horizon” may be a good opportunity for Cambodia’s tourism industry to focus on “protecting, preserving and promoting their culture to domestic people first.”

Dara is the acting chairman of a coalition of artists and organisations advising the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts on crafting policies to safeguard traditional Khmer arts and the culture industry. Supported by UNESCO funds, the Cultural and Creative Industry of Cambodia Association for Development and Advocacy, or CICADA, will work to ensure artists are supported during hardships of the type caused by the pandemic.

If the industry doesn’t change, Dara said another catastrophic event on the level of Covid-19 could permanently kill certain traditional Khmer arts.

“The cultural industry can’t go through another event like that,” Dara said. “We barely survived the genocide and we barely survived the pandemic. Who knows what else Cambodia would lose if we went through that again.”

Houn Harb, director of operations at Phare, The Cambodian Circus, takes a seat on center stage in the circus’ performance tent. Photo: Anton L. Delgado

This article is produced as part of the SEAFORE ASEAN Masterclass project with support from IWPR

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