Australian producer/director Sally Ingleton describes how she came across the inspirational story of The Tenth Dancer - Em Theay, one of the few members of Cambodia's Royal Court Ballet who survived the Pol Pot purges.
As a documentary filmmaker I am always on the lookout for an irresistable story. And what makes that story come alive is personality. In 1989 I was in Phnom Penh witnessing a performance of Cambodia's National Dance Company - formerly known as the Royal Ballet. The setting was exotic. By the banks of the Mekong River sat a large theatre with a pagoda shaped roof. On stage were over thirty georgous women dressed in velvet sequinned outfits who with graceful hand gestures and intricate eye movements were acting out one of the ancient storytelling traditions of the East. In the wings was a toothless elderly woman singing and clapping out a rhythm dictated to by the dancers steps. I sensed we would get to know each other and indeed we did.
She was 62 year old dance master Em Theay, one of only a handful of dancers to survive the brutal Pol Pot years. A remarkable woman, full of energy, compassion and humour. Almost single handed she had rebuilt the famous Royal Ballet. I was introduced to Em Theay and one her pupils Pen Sok Chea and that night they told me their history.
Em Theay grew up in the palace as her parents were servants for the king and queen. She learnt to dance from the age of six, finally joining the Royal Ballet in her late teens. She became a principal dancer in the 1950's and toured many countries accompanying the then young monarch, Prince Sihanouk. She was so keen to perform that often the palace wouldn't know she was pregnant until only a few weeks before she gave birth. With a wicked chuckle she confessed that she had had eighteen children! Eventually she became a teacher and one of her best pupils was the statuesque Pen Sok Chea. Their fairytale existence came to an abrupt halt in 1975 when Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh and the story of the 'killing fields' began. Both Em Theay and Sok Chea were forcibly evacuated from their homes along with almost the entire population of Phnom Penh. For days they walked and walked into the countryside until they ended up in a work camp with thousands of others.
Em Theay took with her only a few belongings - a dance sarong, some incense and her treasured notebooks which contained the record of many important sacred songs and dances. She couldn't bear to part with them as they were the only memory of her former life, so she sewed them into a pillow case and hid them inside the walls of her hut. When soldiers came looking for paper for which to roll cigarettes with - often offering food in exchange - she kept silent. Not even the threat of starvation could make her part with her books. It was an act of courageous resistance, for to be recognised as one of the king's dancers was a death sentence. In order to conceal their identities both women lied to the Khmer Rouge. Em Theay pretended she had been a market seller and although Sok Chea didn't even know how to sew she claimed to be a seamstress, just willing herself to do it when the time came. At night Em Theay would light incense towards the wall of her hut and pray to her ancestors that one day she would return home to train the dancers once more.
Em Theay's wish came true. In 1979 after Pol Pot's army had fled into Thailand, she returned to Phnom Penh and began the task of putting the Royal Ballet back together. She sought out her former pupils and teachers only to discover that most had died. Those who remained were malnourished and after three years of hard labour, lacked the suppleness and grace so necessary for Cambodian traditional dance. Determined not to let the culture perish, Em Theay gathered the surviving dancers and then recruited friends and relatives to build up the numbers. Day by day she fed, pushed and prodded their bodies until gradually their flexibility and memory of the ancient dance movements returned. Her perserverence paid off. Today the National Dance Company of Cambodia has over sixty members and the Fine Arts School has more than three hundred students of traditional dance.
Now 40, Sok Chea finds her commitment to dance is much greater than when she studied as a young woman. In those days there were so many dancers whereas since Pol Pot the troupe has had to work extremely hard to rebuild itself and its repertoire. She acknowledges her debt to Em Theay. 'Under Pol Pot I lost some of my drive and talent. Since then, Em Theay's been like a mother to me, guiding and training me so that some of my spirit has returned'.
When the dinner was finished I knew within the personalities of these two women lay a compelling story - one which exemplified the resilience of the Cambodian people as well as the sensibility of the artist. I was determined to make a film about them and set about the arduous task of attracting finance. Two years ... and hundreds of phone calls, faxes and knocking on Executive Producer's doors later, the story was sold to both the BBC and ABC television with the rest of the budget coming from the Australian Film Finance Corporation and AIDAB.
Suddenly making the film became daunting. I couldn't speak Cambodian; a civil war with the unpredictable Khmer Rouge continued; and getting permissions from Cambodian authorities became like a Byzantine game of hide and seek. What sustained me through it all was the generosity and friendship of Em Theay and Sok Chea who allowed me to enter their life opening up the channels of communication to a universal language.