Sunday, July 5, 2009

Preserving the lifeblood

Em Theay, Cambodia's finest
Here is another press article from the archives, this time focusing on classical Cambodian dance and my favourite icon, Em Theay. Someone has got to write a book about this lady and her unique role in the center of classical dance for the last 60 years. Her story is simply too important not to be told in every detail. She isn't getting any younger afterall. Both Unesco and the Cambodian government should stump up the funds for the book, and my choice to author it would be Denise Heywood. Maybe I should start a Facebook group to get support for my idea. Anyway, here's the story by an old Phnom Penh favourite Jon Swain.
Peace Movement
Cambodia's killing fields almost destroyed 1000 years of culture. Now the surviving dancers of the royal ballet are passing on their secrets, teaching children to perfect the elaborate steps. Jon Swain reports for The Sunday Times Magazine 7 February 1999.
Dawn comes suddenly to Cambodia. For a few treasured moments this beautiful, ravaged little country seems at peace with itself. As the sun begins to light the land, Em Theay, a 66-year-old woman with a careworn expression, leaves her tiny apartment and makes her way through the poverty-stricken streets of Phnom Penh, past the spiked pagodas and processions of monks in saffron robes, to the fine arts faculty on the other side of town. It stands at the end of a dirt track behind the French embassy and, like much of Phnom Penh, is dilapidated. The burnt-sienna and cream floor tiles are cracked and missing in places. But an enchantment awaits the eye. The hall fills with several hundred sparkling girls aged 7 to 17 - Cambodian classical ballet dancers. Their school uniforms of blue skirts and white blouses are exchanged for bright satin bodices. Long silken swathes in reds, blues and purples are bound tightly round the thighs and legs - half skirt, half trousers. The ghostly sound of bells, rising and falling unexpectedly, fills the dawn and, from all corners, hands glide onto the dance floor, unfolding with the grace of a blossoming flower. There are few visions in the world more enchantingly romantic or more apt to bring a faraway look to the seasoned traveller's eye than these dancers. Graceful and perfectly poised, their small hands alone weave amazing patterns in the air. They seem to be the sisters of those bare-breasted apsaras (the king's celestial concubines) sculpted in stone on the walls of the fabled temple of Angkor Wat. The roots of Cambodian dance lie in Angkor, the pinnacle of Khmer civilisation, which flourished more than 1000 years ago. Auguste Rodin remarked, when he saw the dancers in Paris in 1906, that it was "impossible to see human nature brought to such perfection. There are these and the Greeks."
But 20 years ago Cambodian dance was dying. Between 1975 and 1979 the country was turned into a forced labour camp under the rule of Pol Pot, the militant communist Khmer Rouge leader. As many as 1.7m people died, and its rich and vibrant culture was all but destroyed. In order to sever Cambodians' links with their past and start at Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge did away with traditional musical instruments, abolished festivals, burnt books and records and confiscated Buddhist manuscripts. The royal ballet was dissolved, and 90% of the dancers, including Em Theay's two sisters, perished through malnutrition, overwork, harsh treatment and execution in the countryside. It was an irreparable loss, but fortunately Em Theay survived the tyranny. She spent four years working in the rice fields but never forgot the dance movements she learnt from the age of seven. Brought up in the grounds of the royal palace, where her mother was a cook, she was noticed by the queen mother and personally engaged as a dancer. Because of her strong physique she was coached to play the part of the demon king in the Ramayana, the epic of Prince Rama and his wife, Sita, and was so good that she eventually became a teacher within the palace. "Amazingly, my skills saved me from death," she said. "The Khmer Rouge village leader forced me to reveal that I was a dancer and made me perform for him. He was clearly enchanted and spared me from his elimination order." When the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in January 1979, she made her way back to Phnom Penh and joined the new department of culture, for which she works to this day. Her knowledge of the ancient Cambodian dance movements stayed in her head like the secrets of a favourite recipe, and now she is passing them on.
It is a struggle. Cambodia, recovering still from years of war, neglect and suffering despite the death of Pol Pot last year and the final collapse of the Khmer Rouge, devotes less than 0.1% of its national budget to culture. The demoralised national theatre employees - 248 artists, technicians and stagehands - are lucky if they receive $10-20 a month in salary, let alone put on shows, for they lack performance space. The foyer, a triangular one-time fish pond, black with neglect, comes alive for three hours each morning, with 20 dancers practising on a torn tarpaulin lain over pebbled slabs. For the rest of the day the theatre is deserted, save for street children using it as a playground. But help has come from outside. A French theatrical producer is in negotiations to bring a touring troupe of performers to France this year, in the hope of raising Cambodia's culture profile abroad. And there has been assistance from a Japanese foundation, which has donated $30,000 for vital notation work to rescue the 60 or so dances that would otherwise vanish into oblivion. Two foreign-notation experts are busy recording the 4000 gestures on paper and videotape from the few surviving former royal palace dancers before they become too ill to pass on their knowledge, or die. The secret of making the equisite papier-mache and lacquer masks used in performances of the Ramayana was always in the hands of a few specialist families. An Sok, who learnt to make masks in the royal palace at 11 and is now 58, is one of the handful of master mask makers left. A Unesco pledge of $5000 for 30 masks for the Ramayana will go some way to helping him survive. Each mask takes a month to complete. "The faculty has received no money for the ancient art of mask-making, and it is destined to die unless I can train some young people into the business," he said at his roof-terrace workshop near the Mekong river.
Cambodian dance is a highly stylised art. Every day there is intense and painful training to make the joints so supple that the hands can bend over backwards into an agonising position nearly on the forearm. The girls sit cross-legged in rows for these tough morning exercises, moving to the thwack of the teacher's cane on the terracota. Their movements defy the laws of natural bodily suppleness: the stretching of the legs in every direction, the coaxing of the elbow joint in the opposite direction, and kness, ankles, all the joints are trained to find positions that make them look as if they will suddenly snap off. A first-year student had the audacity to grumble to Em Theay and was swiftly reminded that she was now an instrument in the service of the Cambodian king. Every day for the next 10 years these girls will repeat the same gestures until they become second nature and are of the highest refinement. Vong Metri, 44, a strikingly handsome former graduate of the fine arts university, is concentrating on teaching a group of 12-year-olds who are learning the role of Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. "When we were in the fields we invented a new dance," she recalled. "It was called digging the ground, chopping the firewood, harvesting the rice. It was hard - terribly, terribly hard - but somehow I survived."
If the modern revival of Cambodian dance is to succeed, it will be in no small way due to the efforts of Princess Bopha Devi, King Norodom Sihanouk's daughter. She used to be the leading dancer in the royal ballet before it was smashed by war and the Khmer Rouge. With her suppleness as a dancer, she might have stepped straight out of the legends of Angkor. She is now minister of culture, a role she takes seriously, arriving often unannounced, two pekingese dogs in tow, at Em Theay's training sessions to lend a hand teaching the girls. "Dance has been in my family for generations," she said. "My mother, my grandmother - my father even played a musical instrument to accompany the royal ballet. But then it belongs to all Khmers and, as I see it, our principal aim now is the preservation of classical dance - not only dance but all of our culture. You can say that we will have to be very brave and ingenious. We are a small country with little means at our disposal, but we'll manage somehow because we have to. It is our lifeblood we are preserving here."

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Legacy film shows

Em Theay adjusts the headdress of her principal student Sok Chea
This week Meta House is screening a selection of rare documentaries that deal with Cambodia's troubled past, it's legacy of the last 40 years. I will be presenting two films on Thursday of this week (28th May) and two more on Friday night, both screenings begin at 7pm at Meta House, next to Wat Botum on Street 264. If you haven't seen The Tenth Dancer then you must come on Thursday. It is a extraordinary film shot in 1993 that tells the story of the re-emergence of classical Khmer court dance in the wake of the Khmer Rouge's attempts to annihilate the country's cultural heritage. Told through interviews with the incredible Em Theay and her principal dancer Sok Chea, it is a wonderful time-capsule of the early 90s and a tribute to a true icon of Cambodian culture, Em Theay. The recent benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer at Bophana was dedicated to her after a house fire destroyed her family's possessions including a tattered song and dance book that she managed to keep hidden throughout the Khmer Rouge regime. You will see how much that book meant to her in the film. I saw Em Theay out of the corner of my eye at the Bophana screening and she wept as she watched that segment of the film. If that doesn't get to you, nothing will. To meet the lady in person is to be absorbed by her spirited personality and natural grace and zest for life and dance. The film by Sally Ingleton is a wonderful tribute to her and her fellow dancers and teachers. Visit the website of The Tenth Dancer to find out more about this incredible story of survival. The second screening on Thursday will be the dreamlike Samsara: Death & Rebirth in Cambodia, produced in 1989 by Ellen Bruno, documenting the struggle of Cambodians to rebuild a shattered society, interspersed with ancient prophecies and folklore.
The opening sequence of The Tenth Dancer with Em Theay and Sok Chea at the Royal Palace
Em Theay proudly shows some of the books she kept hidden during Pol Pot time
Em Theay and her principal dancer Sok Chea
Samsara: Death & Rebirth in Cambodia

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dance family

A special moment, the author with Em Theay after today's performance
This afternoon's fundraising film screening for Em Theay and her family after they lost everything in a house fire in March, was well-attended at the Bophana Center and the audience were given an extra special treat with solo dances from Em Theay herself, now 76 years old, her daughter Kim Ann Thong, whose supple movements belied her 56 years, and her 27 year old granddaughter Nam Narim, who has just returned home after her university studies in Korea. Three generations of a family steeped in traditional Cambodian classical dance. And if that wasn't enough, Em Theay then answered questions from the knowledgeable crowd and delighted us with more dance and song. It could've gone on for hours, you could see she was loving every minute of it. The film everyone had watched was Sally Ingleton's 1993 documentary The Tenth Dancer and having not seen it for a few years, it was even better than I remembered it. On screen Theay is shown passing on her knowledge and her skills to a new generation of dancers as Cambodia recovers from the shadows left by the Khmer Rouge regime. The event was organized by Toni Shapiro-Phim of Khmer Arts and the audience included Fred Frumberg and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. If you want to donate to Em Theay and her family, contact Toni at
Three generations of a classical family; Nam Narim, Kim Ann Thong and Em Theay
Mother & daughter; Kim Ann Thong, also known as Preab and her daughter Nam Narim

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Today is Em Theay Day

Em Theay - a zest for life undiminished by time and fate
Em Theay and her daughter look through their family photographs - now lost in the fire that destroyed their home and possessions
Today is dedicated to the iconic Cambodian classical dancer and teacher Em Theay. At 4pm this afternoon a fundraising benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer will take place at the Bophana Center on St 200 in Phnom Penh in honour of Em Theay. In March, Theay and her daughter lost everything in a house fire. As she explained to The Cambodia Daily yesterday. "One of the most important things I've lost in the fire, and that still pains me, are my documents on dance, which cannot be replaced. I spent all my life collecting them and keeping them with great care only to have them destroyed in the fire." The Tenth Dancer is a film made in 1993 about Em Theay and her dedication to reviving the classical artform. I remember being captivated by it when I watched it many years ago. But I think it means even more to me today, having met Em Theay in person and having succumbed to her spirited personality and natural grace and zest for life and dance. The recent fire at her daughter's home that destroyed everything, including her precious memories, was a cruel twist for a family who have already endured more than most. Read more about Em Theay here and here.
The author and Em Theay - a precious moment for me, March 2008
Em Theay - always immaculate, getting ready for an interview on film
Em Theay photographed at a recent book party at Monument Books
Em Theay with author Denise Heywood in a recent photo
Em Theay adjusts the headdress of her pupil Sok Chea in a scene from The Tenth Dancer

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Posting problems

I've gone quiet in the last day or so as are again having posting problems and have lots of aggravated customers. Though its a free service their lack of response to major problems like this is disappointing, as it was a week or so ago, and millions of people are sat at home, or in the office, twiddling their thumbs and getting more angry by the minute. Or is that just me.
It rained so heavily last night in Phnom Penh that I was forced to remain indoors and missed the Messenger Band in concert at Gasolina. I also managed to avoid the new Elsewhere Party. This is the monthly bash where lots of the city's expats gather together to drink, talk shite and smoke weed. Their old location closed down and now they've moved just around the corner from me. I will continue to avoid it like the plague until it moves again. Today I'll get along to the Olympic Stadium to watch the opening two matches of the new Cambodia Premier League season. I also need to interview the national coach for an article in Monday's Phnom Penh Post. He returned yesterday, with his squad, from Bangladesh, so I'll give him a day or so to gather his thoughts before sticking the microphone under his nose. And tomorrow at 4pm, it's the Em Theay fundraiser at Bophana Center, where the excellent The Tenth Dancer documentary will get an airing. I'm looking forward to that and I hope a great response from the community here to the recent losses suffered by Em Theay and her family.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Out of the ashes, again

Em Theay adjusts the headdress of Sok Chea during The Tenth Dancer
I urge you to come along to a benefit fundraiser for a national icon in Cambodia, Em Theay, this coming Sunday, 3 May at 4pm at the Bophana Center on Street 200 in Phnom Penh. Here is the official press release for the benefit screening:

Out of the ashes, again
Screening of award-winning film, The Tenth Dancer, to be held as a benefit for renowned classical dancer and singer Em Theay and her family, whose house burned down last month.
On Sunday, May 3rd, the documentary film, The Tenth Dancer, focusing on Em Theay and one of her most accomplished classical dance students, will be shown as part of a fundraising event to help Em Theay and her family recovers from a fire that destroyed all their possessions, including a priceless 60-year-old handwritten book of song lyrics. Organized by Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim, director of Research and Archiving at Khmer Arts in Takhmao, Cambodia, and the staff of Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, the screening will take place at 4 PM, followed by a question and answer session with Em Theay and her daughter, Thoang Kim An, also a noted classical dancer.

In just under four years, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 80-90% of Cambodia’s professional artists perished, including most of the members of the royal dance troupe. Perhaps only one in ten survived. The Tenth Dancer is the story of one of those who did. After Pol Pot was overthrown in 1979, dance teacher and singer Em Theay returned to Phnom Penh to help rebuild the troupe. The Tenth Dancer is an intimate portrait of the relationship between a teacher who works tirelessly to pass on her unique knowledge, and her devoted pupil, set against the backdrop of a devastated country. The film weaves the past and the present, memory and dream, to reveal a story of human dignity and survival.
In March, Em Theay’s house burned down. Her family was unable to save anything, as they were trying to help the neighbours, whose house went up in flames first, not imagining the fire would spread so quickly.

Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center will host the screening/fundraiser on Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 4 PM, #64, Street 200, Phnom Penh (behind the French Cultural Center). Admission is free. Donations are requested.

The Tenth Dancer was made by Australian filmmaker Sally Ingleton who has been producing and directing award-winning documentaries for 25 years. Khmer Arts is an international NGO dedicated to fostering the vitality of Cambodian dance across borders. Also see here.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Benefit screening on 3 May

Keep a space in your diary for Sunday 3 May. That looks the likely date for a benefit screening at Bophana Center here in Phnom Penh of The Tenth Dancer, and it's featured classical dance teacher Em Theay. This wonderful lady and her daughter suffered a disastrous house fire a few weeks ago and lost everything. It would be a wonderful gesture if we can show our support and gratitude to Em Theay and her family for the unselfish work they have put in over the years to get classical Khmer dance back on its feet. Em Theay is an icon of exceptional dignity, serenity and grace and deserves our support. More on the benefit screening as I get it. Also read here.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Diverse story-telling

Em Theay (left) recounts her survival story on stage in The Continuum. Kulikar Sotho is the narrator on the right.
The remarkable survival story of Em Theay, and others including her daughter Preap, told in the filmed version of the extraordinary travelling theatre performance piece, The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields, was screened at Bophana this afternoon. Filmed in 2001 by director Ong Keng Sen, it's an eclectic mix of spoken word, dance, song, shadow puppetry, video, memoir and music with septuagenarian Theay as the central figure around which the theatre piece, and documentary, revolves. The play premiered at Yale University in America and was seen in Berlin, Rotterdam, Vienna, Singapore, Phnom Penh, London and Gothenberg in Sweden, bringing the heart-rending survival story of Theay to new audiences in a unique, emotional and experimental fashion. Poignantly, the film begins with an offering to the teachers - kru - of the artists, a ritual that is done before any performance of the classical arts, as we see Theay doing what she does best, teaching and imparting her gift of knowledge to others. On a darkened stage, the film shows the performers telling their stories in Khmer, some with translation, some not though the audience were provided with printed scripts in English, whilst traditional giant shadow puppets and dance are also used against a background of modern acoustic music and lighting. It was such an experimental piece of theatre that I found myself wanting to know what Theay thought about exposing her sad story in this unusual fashion. Next time I meet her, I will certainly ask.
Nico from Meta House introduces Kulikar Sotho and Nick Ray of Hanuman Films
I was accompanied to The Continuum by my pal Sophoin and after the film finished we headed straight for Meta House and another bout of film screenings, this time as part of the Hanuman Film Night that I helped to arrange. Hanuman Films don't produce or direct films and documentaries, but they do everything else to make them happen and founders Nick Ray and Kulikar Sotho, who just happened to be the narrator for The Continuum performances, gave the audience a behind-the-scenes taste of the Hollywood blockbuster Tomb Raider from 2000, a BBC Timewatch documentary on Pol Pot (2005) and a Vietnam Special from the popular BBC programme Top Gear, filmed just a few months ago. Three very different productions but a good cross-section of the work Hanuman are involved in and I think the three-hour film and Q&A session worked rather well.
The BBC's Timewatch series documentary on Pol Pot from 2005
A scene from the Pol Pot documentary

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tenth Dancer

Em Theay adjusts the headdress of Sok Chea during The Tenth Dancer
The Tenth Dancer was a watershed film for me in many respects. There was so little television or film coming out of Cambodia in the early '90s that Sally Ingleton's 1993 documentary on the revival of classical dance in Cambodia through two of its shining stars, Em Theay and Sok Chea, was a godsend when it was screened by the BBC back in England. But I think it means even more to me today, having met Em Theay in person and having succumbed to her spirited personality and natural grace and zest for life and dance. The recent fire at her daughter's home where Theay lived that destroyed everything, including her precious memories, was a cruel twist for a family who have already endured more than most. I'm hoping that a benefit screening of The Tenth Dancer can take place at the Bophana Center in the near future, so people can see this beautifully-crafted film and at the same time, show their respect and admiration for Em Theay and her family. Please visit the website of The Tenth Dancer to find out more about this incredible story of survival of classical dance and the dancers themselves.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Em Theay's sadness

With the legendary Em Theay (she's squeezing my hand behind my back) in March 2008
I've just heard some very sad news but I don't have all the details as yet. A house fire destroyed the possessions of one of Cambodia's true national icons, Em Theay, last week, leaving this lovely lady without any of her prized items including her books of priceless photographs which she proudly showed me when I spent some time with her in March last year. This lady lives for classical dance and her memories, which she loves to share with her students, family and friends. I can't begin to imagine how she feels after this tragic incident. There are moves afoot to get a benefit fundraiser sorted out to screen the film The Tenth Dancer by way of providing some monetary help to Em Theay, though nothing can replace the prized possessions she has lost. To remind you about Em Theay, here's one of my blog posts from September 2006:

After posting the Beyond the Killing Fields blog entry yesterday, I recalled that Em Theay 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 tremendously proud of.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Two of the best

Em Theay and Denise Heywood. Photo courtesy of William Bagley
Anyone who reads my blog will know that I was genuinely upset that I had to miss Denise Heywood's talk at Monument Books a couple of days ago - absolutely gutted is how I would phrase it. However, Denise has sent me a run-down on how it went - including who was amongst the audience and that the projector screen fell down whilst she was talking! - and best of all, I love the above picture of two of my favourite ladies, Denise and the legendary Em Theay, who came to the talk with her daughter. Em Theay is a national treasure and icon and deserves her place at the pinnacle of Cambodian dance today. Here's a link to a story in the Phnom Penh Post about Denise and her book: Phnom Penh Post. And here's a few more photos that Denise has just sent me.
Em Theay and in Denise's words: "she's my favourite person and someone whom I revere for her courage, strength, inner and outer beauty."
Denise couldn't get enough of her special guest, Em Theay
Denise with Prince Sisowath Tesso, the great-great-grandson of King Sisowath, and Secretary of State at the Tourism Ministry
Denise signs a copy of her book for Helen Jarvis

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