A zest for life
Andy Brouwer Meets Cambodia's Tenth Dancer
Excerpted from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
Around the same time as I first came to Cambodia in 1994, I watched a memorable documentary that focused on the fledgling revival of Cambodian classical dance. It featured one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed nine out of every ten of the country's dancers-hence the film's title, The Tenth Dancer. The survivor's name was Em Theay, and it was clear that she was a remarkable woman. Little did I know that years later I would meet her and discover that she was an even more exceptional individual than I first thought.
I was acting as the local fixer for a documentary about Cambodia, thirty years after the end of Pol Pot's iron-fisted rule. We'd interviewed Vann Nath, the famous painter of Tuol Sleng prison, and now it was the turn of the living icon of Cambodian royal court dance. Dressed in her finest clothes, her toothless grin spreading from ear to ear, Em Theay arrived with her eldest daughter, also a leading classical dancer. She was seventy-eight years old, and the prospect of talking about dance-her lifeblood for so many decades-was something she was eagerly anticipating.
With the help of a translator, Em Theay launched into the story of her life, a tale of funny moments interspersed with the sadness of the Pol Pot years and the subsequent struggles to resurrect her beloved dance traditions. She was chosen to dance at the age of seven by Queen Kossamak, for whom her parents worked as domestic servants. She grew up in the Royal Palace and was a dancer and singer in the King'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 did not go unnoticed-her captors encouraged her to sing and dance as well as work in the fields.
In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, twelve of Em Theay's eighteen children were alive. By the end of the Khmer Rouge period in the late '70s, seven more had died and only five were left. Her spirit unbroken, 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 Company and the Royal University of Fine Arts until a few years ago.
She told her moving story with such grace and dignity that it was impossible for those present not to feel the emotion of the moment, and as I listened in awe, I quickly wiped away the tears before anyone could see. But laughter is never far from Em Theay's lips. She even surprised the cameraman on a couple of occasions by springing up from her chair to demonstrate the wealth of postures and movements that she knew by heart and had passed on to countless students over the years, including her own children and grandchildren. As she finished her tale with more of her amusing stories about her students, I found myself unsure whether to laugh or cry. She ended the session by sitting on the floor and handing me countless photographs of her family and some of herself, yellowing with age, but obviously precious items and memories. Clearly, her desire to pass on the secrets of the royal court dance has been undiminished by time.
In March 2009 Em Theay and her daughter lost everything in a house fire. Irreplaceable documents of dance and family history - her treasured notebooks, which contained the record of many important sacred songs and dances, along with those yellowing photographs, which she kept hidden from the Khmer Rouge on pain of death - were gone forever. A benefit concert and a screening of The Tenth Dancer have raised much-needed funds to assist her. While such support helps, nothing can be done to retrieve her invaluable possessions. Yet she continues on, undaunted. Her life has been - and still is - an incredible journey. She is not only a true survivor, she is also a vital link to Cambodia's glorious past.
Fact File: The Tenth Dancer
Sally Ingleton's 1993 documentary is a testament to the resilience of Em Theay and the rest of the Cambodia classical dancers and their dedication to resurrecting this vital link to Cambodia's past.