Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Tenth Dancer - Em Theay

After posting the Beyond the Killing Fields blog entry yesterday, I recalled that Em Theay (pictured) was the main subject of a documentary I watched many years ago called The Tenth Dancer, which focused on the strength and resilience of the women of Cambodia in rebuilding their traditions from the fragments of a shattered society. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the death or disappearance of over 90% of Cambodian artists, including most of the dancers of the Royal Ballet. Theay was one of the 10% to survive. The Tenth Dancer was made as long ago as 1993. Em Theay is still dancing and teaching today and performing abroad at the age of 75 years old - by anyone's reckoning that is a remarkable story.

Em Theay was chosen to dance at the age of seven by Queen Kossomak, for whom her parents worked as domestic servants. She grew up in the Royal Palace and was a dancer and singer in King Sihanouk's Royal Ballet until the Khmer Rouge took over her country. At that time she was forty-three and was sent to live in Battambang, where her talents didn't go unnoticed and her captors encouraged her to sing and dance as well as work in the fields. In 1975, twelve of her 18 children were alive. By the end of the KR period, seven had died and only five were left. Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh where her knowledge and skills of the traditional arts were put to use as a teacher at the National Dance Theatre and the Royal University of Fine Arts until quite recently. She is a vital link to Cambodia's past, quite literally a living national treasure and one that Cambodia should be rightly proud of.

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Andy said...

BBC News 24 Feb 2005
Cambodia's 'tenth dancer' on stage

The story of a Cambodian royal dancer who is the only member of her troupe to survive the Khmer Rouge is set to be staged in London.

The life of 75-year-old Em Theay - who was just 15 when she first became one of the most important singers and dancers at Cambodia's royal palace - forms the basis of The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

The documentary performance, which features Theay herself - has already visited Yale University, Berlin, Rotterdam, Vienna, Singapore, and Phnom Penh. It is performed with shadow puppets, music and dance, and both Khmer language and English.

"It is very emotional, because it is truly the story of my real life, from my youth to now," Theay told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"It's very emotional, but also it's a journey of discovering my real inside - because I never wanted to say what was going on in my real life to anybody."

When the monarchy ended in 1970, Theay became a classical dancer for the Cambodian Republic. But when civil war broke out five years later, she was sent to a labour camp by the Khmer Rouge. Remarkably, she survived, and was able to walk 170 miles back to Phnom Penh barefoot when Pol Pot's regime fell in 1979.

Ninety percent of intellectuals and artists were killed, which is why Em Theay is sometimes known as the "tenth" dancer. She has since committed her life to rebuilding Cambodia's cultural heritage.

She recalled that she was first spotted as a dancer by the Queen Mother, when she was imitating other dancers in rehearsal. A few years later, she became the most high-profile dancer at court, taking the main role in the performances. "My life was full of joy and prosperity."

Theay was performing at the royal palace the day the Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh. "When I finished, I went outside and heard the announcement, and crowds of people running and pushing each other down the street.

"The announcement was: 'Everyone has to leave the city in 24 hours'."

She ran home and collected the two of her children who were still in the city, and the three of them marched to the labour camps.

Two of her sons were soon sent to what was called the "front line" - "front line meaning work hard, eat less, and get killed," Theay explained.

"Two of my daughters got married and lived in separate houses, so I was living on my own. Later on they found out that I was a classical dancer in the Palace, and one of the officers was interested in seeing the classical performances.

"I did whatever she wanted me to do."

As well as singing and dancing, Theay was also instructed to work in the rice fields, or look after children. She added that it was simply "luck" that enabled her to survive, while so many others died.

"I was not intellectual, I was not a more well-known artist than my other friends - and I was working as hard as my other friends, I ate as little as my other friends - but they all died, and I stayed as a wife," she said.

"That was luck more than anything, that helped me not only to survive, but brought me all the joy and peacefulness that I have to this day."

She also said that in the 25 years since the regime fell, she has felt her main purpose to be to spread a message of hope.

"I want to tell my Cambodian people, as well as the whole world, that togetherness is very important," she added.

"Every single Cambodian family was affected by the civil war, every single Cambodian family lost their children.

"The families are still talking about this... the big percentage knows what happened, so loving and forgiving each other is very important."

5:47 AM
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March 28, 2008 at 8:37 AM  

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