Century Dancer

Em Theay does not know exactly when she was born. All she remembers is that she was a little girl living at the Royal Palace when King Norodom Sihanouk was crowned in 1941. Her father was a servant to the royal family, and her mother was a cook at the palace. Fascinated by the Royal Ballet dancers, she was allowed to join the palace’s Khmer classical dance class when she was around 6 years old.

Dancers Long Sokphal, left, and Em Theay at the Peaceful Children’s Home orphanage in Kandal province’s Sre Ampil village in 2012. (Arjay Stevens)
Dancers Long Sokphal, left, and Em Theay at the Peaceful Children’s Home orphanage in Kandal province’s Sre Ampil village in 2012. (Arjay Stevens)

Dance would become her life. Even now that she is in her 80s, she still teaches on weekends. Every Sunday, her old friend, the dancer Long Sokphal, picks her up and the two of them ride on his motorcycle to the Peaceful Children’s Home orphanage in Sre Ampil village in Kandal province, where they teach Khmer classical dance to the children. “As she tells me, she doesn’t want to die without having the chance to share her knowledge,” Mr. Sokphal  said.

German photographer Arjay Stevens, who first met Ms. Theay nearly two decades ago, calls her the “grand old lady of the Royal Dance.”

When he went to interview her three years ago, he was appalled to find her living in run-down housing. She liked living independently but her government pension of 200,000 riel ($50) per month did not give her many options.

So Mr. Stevens decided to compile a photo book about Ms. Theay and hold photography exhibitions of his pictures of her dancing, donating all proceeds from sales to her. The 115-page photo book “A Century Artist” was released two weeks ago with text in English, Khmer, French and German.

“Usually when a famous person dies, people make a big effort and hold huge ceremonies,” he said in an interview. “But these celebrated personalities get nothing from it. So I said to myself, I must do an homage with all the photos I made of her over nearly two decades and make her benefit from it during her lifetime.”

The first of Mr. Stevens’ exhibitions of photos from the book will open Sunday night at the National Museum, and the second will begin on November 13 at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center. The exhibitions will feature different photos of Ms. Theay.

“I love this lady,” he writes in the book. “Her smile, her warm impish eyes, her charm and kindness, the rigor with which she teaches her pupils.”

Ms Theay gives a workshop in Berlin in 2002. (Arjay Stevens)
Ms Theay gives a workshop in Berlin in 2002. (Arjay Stevens)

The book starts with a portrait of a dignified Ms. Theay sitting in the traditional pose of a classical dancer at rest, which was taken less than a month ago. It ends with an article published on October 21, 1971, in The New York Times listing Em Theay among the cast of the Khmer Classical Ballet of Cambodia that was touring the U.S. that year.

A member of the Royal Ballet when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was ruling the country in the 1950s and the 1960s, Ms. Theay continued to be part of the country’s national ballet company when he was ousted in 1970. As she explains in the book, the advent of the Khmer Republic did not really affect dancers, other than the fact that the word “royal” was removed from the company’s name.

But the Khmer Rouge regime did. “My precious notebooks with old songs and choreography, I had well hidden in a pillowcase between cabin slats,” she says in the book. “That was very risky. Their discovery could reveal my identity as a member of the Royal Ballet—which means death.” She was a widow by 1975, and only five of her 18 children were still alive by the fall of the Khmer Rouge government in January 1979.

Ms. Theay would be one of the few artists who survived the regime. She helped reopen the Royal University of Fine Arts in the 1980s in order to build the first post-Khmer Rouge generation of artists.

Ms Theay directs a performance in Phnom Penh in 1997. (Arjay Stevens)
Ms Theay directs a performance in Phnom Penh in 1997. (Arjay Stevens)

Mr. Sokphal, who trained as a masked-dance Lakhaon Kaol dancer, was one of her students at the time. He remembers her as being a truly versatile artist who could perform just about any dance character, from a villain to a comic role.

“In my opinion, she is a very unique and rare resource in classical dance,” said Mr. Sokphal, who now works for the Culture Ministry’s department of performing arts. “And she sings beautifully even though she is in her 80s.”

As Mr. Stevens’ photos demonstrate, Ms. Theay has remained active throughout her later years. She is shown assisting at a dance performance in 1997 in Phnom Penh; giving a workshop to dancers in Berlin in 2002; performing at an international festival in Phnom Penh in 2009; and teaching at the Sre Ampil orphanage in 2012.

At the opening ceremony of the photo exhibition at the National Museum at 5 p.m. Sunday, her Sre Ampil students will dance in her honor.

“Unlike most Western traditions that rely on written works, buildings and institutions, our tradition of Royal Dance is based on people: dedicated teachers who have passed this knowledge,” Culture Minister Phoeurng Sackona writes in the book’s foreword. “This book celebrates the life of one of the greatest teachers of our time.”

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