Em Theay turns 87 this year. She has lost all her teeth and most of her strength, but has not forgotten her artistry as a Royal Ballet mistress nor her great passion for the traditional performing art. Having devoted her entire life to this passion, she is now the only mistress of the Royal Ballet who is still struggling to pass on her honed skills to the younger generation, writes Taing Rinith.
During a celebration of the Water Festival in 1941, to honour the life-giving Tonle Sap River and the Angkorian Khmer Navy who liberated their land from oppression, the newly-crowned King Norodom Sihanouk held a Royal Ballet performance on a stage in front to the Royal Palace. That was one of the few opportunities of the year where Phnom Penh residents could catch a performance of the classical dances – a prestige enjoyed by monarchs and high officials of the palace.
While waiting for her turn to perform the Moni Mekhala, a dance based on a Hindu-Buddhist myth, 8-year-old Em Theay was so nervous that she almost cried. Although this was her first performance, her teacher Khon Mith, would not hesitate to punish her even for a small mistake.
She did not want to disappoint her family, who had been living in the Royal Palace and serving the King and his family for generations. Her mother, Ou Ny, was a Royal cook while her father, Em Ban, was one of the Royal family’s tailors. More importantly, Theay was handpicked by Princess Sisowath Kossamak, Sihanouk’s mother, who noticed the little girl’s artistic talent, to join the Royal Ballet troupe.
Due to her nervousness, Theay still made some mistakes during the performances and was punished by her teacher. However, she took that as a lesson and trained harder until she became one of the troupe’s best dancer, especially for her role as the Ream Eyso, the evil ogre in Moni Mekhala.
At the young age of 18, Theay became a teacher of the Royal Ballet, who trained many future teachers of the art. Her most notable pupil was Sin Samadeukcho, who went on a diplomatic entourage with King Sihanouk to perform as part of the Royal Ballet troupe on state visits to Europe and other Asian countries.
Nearly 80 years have passed since her first performance, but Theay is still active as a Royal Ballet coach, teaching Cambodian children to perform the Royal Ballet. Countless things have changed but Theay’s mind is still filled with happiness from the Golden Age of the Royal Ballet.
“During the era of Songkum (1955-1970), the King Father (Norodom Sihanouk) believed that the Royal Ballet should be open to everyone, not just those living in the Royal Palace,” Theay says, smiling.
“His majesty created schools to teach classical dances so that the ordinary people could learn and enjoy them. My salary at that time was 3,000 riel, which was a lot of money, even enough to buy a few taels of gold.”
Even after Sihanouk was overthrown by a bloodless coup by General Lon Nol in 1970, Theay was still allowed to keep her job and live in the Royal Palace. After five years, her worst nightmare arrived when Khmer Rouge came into power on April 17, 1975. She still remembered the day the black-shirt army entered Phnom Penh although she tries to forget it.
“I just got home and had a rest after a long day of teaching when Khmer Rouge soldiers came into the palace,” she says. “They forced us to leave the palace at once. I was so sad because I had to leave the place where I was born and had lived and worked for 40 years.”
It was a hard journey for Theay, a widow at that time as her husband Thong Kong, a royal bodyguard, passed away in 1970, leaving her to take care of their nine children alone. The family lived in Kandal for one month before Khmer Rouge cadres ordered them to get on a train to Battambang.
Under the ruthless rule of Khmer Rouge, Theay and her family had to suffer from starvation and forced labour, like the other “New People”. All of her four sons, who were also Royal Ballet artists, were killed when the Khmer Rouge cadres found out about their profession. In contrast, Theay was able to survive, thanks to her skill, and her hard work.
“I also told them (Khmer Rouge cadres) that I was a Royal Ballet dancer, but they did not kill me,” Theay recalled. “I always did the task they assigned to me, but they often asked me to dance for them to during my break time from forced labour. I danced for them in my black working clothes.
“It must have been my hard work and my skills that saved my life.”
After the collapse of Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea, Theay made her way back to Phnom Penh, hoping to resume her career as a Royal Ballet instructor. On her way to the capital, she caught up with some of her colleague and students. It broke her heart after she learned that about 90 percent of the Royal Ballet dancers and their masters and mistresses had perished between 1975 and 1979. It was then that she committed herself to revive the art.
Theay and other seven surviving Royal Ballet mistresses and artists formed “colonies” in order to restore their sacred traditions. Receiving only rice as their payment and lacking tools and equipment, they were struggling to teach the pale and malnourished Cambodian children to perform the classic dances.
As of 2017, only three Royal Ballet mistresses were still alive: Em Theay, her pupil Sin Samadeukcho, and her colleague Ros Kong. All of them have trained thousands of Royal Ballet artists and are recognised as “living heritage” by Cambodian Living Arts – an NGO that focuses on endangered performing art forms and rituals.
In December 2017, Samadeukcho passed away at the age of 78 after a long battle with osteoporosis. Ros Kong, now 85, is bed-ridden and cannot continue giving instructions. Em Theay is thus the only original dance mistress who is contributing to Royal Ballet, by teaching it at workshops, schools and orphanages.
Even now in her mid-80s, Theay can still show her students how to dance. In addition, she still has a good singing voice, and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts often invites her to perform traditional songs at cultural festivals.
“I don’t have a serious disease and neither do I need to see a doctor,” Theay says. “My good health must have been gifted by the Royal Ballet dances, which I have practiced my whole life.”
Soun Bunrith, the Art Education Program Manager at Cambodian Living Arts, who has worked with Em Theay on many projects, calls her “the encyclopedia of Cambodian classical dances”.
“She knows everything about the Royal Ballet and can perform all the roles in the classical dances, whether it is an Apsara, ogre and so on,” Bunrith says.
“Even at such an old age, she can remember everything clearly and has no problem teaching them to her students. When she is teaching, she is doing it with real passion.”
Theay, Bunrith adds, has greatly contributed to preventing the Royal Ballet from completely disappearing, no thanks to the genocide from 1975 to 1979.
However, the art has not brought her wealth, which would allow her to live her last years comfortably. She is now making ends meet, living on her pension and support from her children. Yet, Theay says she would never do anything differently even if she could do it all over again.
“The Royal Ballet is my national identity and my soul,” she says. “Despite having lived through wars and genocide, I am completely satisfied with my life and I have no regrets.”