Em Theay

Article Projects
civil war, death, dictatorship, modernity, pain, tradition
Performing Arts (dance)
Asia, Southeast
Phnom Penh
created on:
May 29, 2003
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since July 2, 2003. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
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"Beyond the killing-fields"

Em Theay - a mistress of Cambodian classical dance - is among the one-in-ten artists who survived mass-murder under Pol Pot. Born in 1932 Em Theay is still working at developing Cambodian dance.
Em Theay´s love of dance began at the age of 7 in training as a classical dancer. At 15 she was given the main roles in classical dance and classical song at the Cambodian royal palace, which became her artistic basis for the next 20 years. With the fall of the monarchy in 1970, she became a classical dancer for the Cambodian republic, then civil war broke out in 1975.

After the conquest of Phnom Penh by the Khmer rouge, nearly all her family were killed. Em Theay is among the one-in-ten artists who managed to survive, but her children died in the concentration-camp Battambang.

In 1979, after the conquest and occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam and the founding of the People´s Republic, Em Theay returned to dancing and was made a Master of Performing Arts by the Ministry of Culture. In the course of time she has perfected her craftsmanship to such an extent as to be able to take on any role as a singer or musician.

As a dancer she has been able to travel through many parts of Asia, Europe and the United States. At the age of 70 she is still determined to improve her style, to write songs and dramas and to develop a new form of classical dance.

In the documentary-performance ´The Continuum: Beyond the Killing-Fields´ the director Ong Keng Sen shows her life and those of many other dancers. He conjures up their memories of court culture, concentration camps and survival during the Pol Phot regime and, by combining dance, puppetry and modern computer-music, creates an impressive image of art in the face of terror. The climax is a scene in which, with her back to the public (an unthinkable faux pas at court), Em Theay dances her own survival.

The basis of the performance are live-interviews and film research in Cambodia at the places of the original events. These include Angkor Wat where the young Em Theay danced for the king, the infamous Tuol-Sleng prison with its meticulously documented death-archive, and the concentration camp in Battambang, where Em Theay´s children perished. 90% of the royal dancers, musicians, actors, poets and artists were murdered during Pol Pot´s fanatic regime.


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.


Transforming the arts

(30 May 02 - 14 June 02)