With hypnotic precision, the dancers move gracefully across the floor, their backs arched and fingers curved backwards in the style typical of Khmer classical dance.
Less typical, however, is that all the dancers are men. In Cambodia, traditional dance – seen as a “mirror of the heavens” performed by near-divine beings – has long been dominated by women.
Natyarasa, a new Cambodian dance company made up entirely of gay men, is changing that.
Formed by Khmer-American choreographer and artist Prumsodun Ok, the company had its stage debut in Phnom Penh late last year.
Ok grew up in Long Beach, California, the son of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge. He recalls falling in love with traditional dance as a small boy, while watching videos of amateur performances.
“The Khmer community in the States was still in its early stages,” he tells SBS at a rehearsal, “so instead of the beautiful crowns that we wear today they had cardboard [hats] with sequins sewn into them. And instead of flower garlands, they had tinsel.”
Despite the inexpert costuming, Ok says, the “beauty and the spirit of the art form” shone through. He began attending classes with renowned Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro as a teenager – after a year of sitting at the sidelines watching his sisters.
After cementing his reputation as dancer with his one-man reinterpretations of Khmer classics, the 30-year-old is passing on his knowledge to the next generation of male dancers.
While a small number of roles in the Khmer tradition are typically played by men, such as monkeys, Natyarasa is challenging gender norms by taking on characters long reserved for women.
“We’re giving this tradition that is the highest symbol of Cambodian identity new character, new approaches, and new possibility to revive itself and to go to new heights,” says Ok.
Equally important, he says, is “giving these young gay men a platform to see themselves in the national dialogue”.
Although same-sex relations are not illegal in Cambodia, there is no legislation that enshrines the rights of LGBT+ people nor are there laws to protect against discrimination.
According to prominent LGBT+ rights activist Srun Srorn, discrimination occurs in key areas such as access to health, education and employment.
But the biggest issues, Srorn says, manifest within the family unit: forced marriages, attempts to ‘cure’ LGBT+ children using traditional healers or Buddhist clergymen, outright rejection and violence are widespread.
“None of the LGBT+ people I met have been accepted [by their families] in the beginning, when coming out,” he says.
Cambodian society places a high value on the institution of marriage and on having children, and many parents fear that their LGBT+ children will not be able to provide for them later in life.
So as well as offering comprehensive training and emotional support to the dancers, Ok pays them a living wage, with the four core members receiving $400 a month – well above Cambodia’s minimum monthly wage of $153.
“What I want to do is empower these young men to live with pride and freedom and independence and courage,” says Ok, adding that he hopes their success will create a ripple effect through society.
Choung Veasna, 20, says being part of Natyarasa has changed his life, in large part due to the economic independence it has given him.
‘’At first, my parents did not support my dancing because they were afraid that I would become a pet ti bai [member of the third gender],” he says.
“But after I received training, I was able to begin earning some money and helping them. Then they started to encourage me more and more.”
Ok received a grant from a US-based foundation to set up Natyarasa in 2015, but those funds now have dried up. Rehearsals take place in his living room, a narrow, tiled space situated four floors above the traffic-filled streets below.
Yet while budgets are tight, the dance company’s star is ascendant. Their elegant performances have captivated audiences since their sell-out debut, when people crowded into the theatre’s aisles to watch the show.
Natyarasa has gone on to perform multiple times in Cambodia and Thailand, with their most recent international appearance at the Bangkok Theatre Festival in early June.
Ok says: “We’re really showing Cambodia and the world that being gay is not contrary to tradition. Being gay is not something unnatural. And it’s perfectly possible to be gay and to take care of your heritage and your culture.”
Although his efforts have been greeted with admiration in some quarters, videos of Ok’s solo work have also sparked anger online. He has even received threats of violence in the past.
But he says he is seeing a “transformation” in attitudes since forming Natyarasa. It’s something the dancers have seen too.
"Before I joined this company, no one valued me. They did not accept me,” says 21-year-old Chamroeun Dara. But his performances, he says, have proved the “gossipers” wrong.
The reason for the change in perception, Veasna says with a laugh, is simple: “We dance better than the women.”
Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @robertsonholly.
Photographs by Nobuyuki Arai and Lim Sokchanlina