Em Theay was a legendary and beloved Khmer classical ballet dancer who began dancing at the age of seven while living at the Royal Palace where her mother was a cook.
Back then the only dancing school in the country – with around 80 dancers when Theay started – was actually at the palace’s Chan Chhaya pavilion.
Em Theay was encouraged by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk to learn dancing. The King was a great patron of the arts and sometimes took 10 or 20 dancers and musicians on his trips abroad.
Robampreah reach trop – the formal name for Khmer ballet – has always been a form of entertainment, but more importantly it has long served a ceremonial purpose at the royal court.
When the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, Theay could not hide her identity because she was a well-known lakhon actor who still resided at the Royal Palace. Her family was deported to Battambang province, and she was occasionally commanded to perform for the Khmer Rouge.
Theay officially retired when she was 55 years old, but she remained actively involved with the arts community and with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts until her recent death in June at the age of 89.
The government gave Theay the title of “living treasure” for her contributions to Khmer dance and she was friendly with King Norodom Sihamoni, who shared her passion for dance as an art form.
Over two decades ago a German photographer – Arjay Stevens – met Theay and struck up an unlikely friendship with her. Stevens dubbed Theay “the grand old lady of the Royal Dance”. A few years ago he held a photo-book exhibition of his pictures of her dances and donated all of the proceeds to her.
In response to Theay’s passing last month, Stevens is looking to honour her legacy once again with an exhibition organised by Sra’ Art called Hommage to Em Theay taking place at Le Phnom 1929 at Raffles Le Royal Phnom Penh.
The exhibition will feature “photographs of the master dancer – may she rest in peace – as well as pictures of other Apsara dancers”, says Cecile Eap, founder of S’ra Art.
All of the proceeds from the sale of the photographs on display will go to Champey Academy of Arts, a non-profit school offering the youth of Phnom Penh free training in Cambodian traditional arts including dance, music, drawing and painting.
“Champey’s mission is to inspire young people to preserve, protect and promote their nation’s culture – which seems fitting given that much of Em Theay’s life was dedicated to doing exactly that,” Eap says.
Eap says that the main exhibition features the work of Arjay Stevens solely, but there are some different prints from the other S’ra Art gallery artists available for purchase by visitors to the exhibition as well.
“Sunday, the gallery will also present some artwork prints in limited edition, to allow each visitor to get a glance at the amazing diversity of Cambodia’s creative scene,” says Eap.
Stevens was formerly a natural scientist but he always had a deep appreciation for art. Eventually he became a photographer himself and became deeply interested in Southeast-Asian cultures and art forms after first visiting the region in 1996.
From the beginning, Khmer culture has always been one of Steven’s main focuses. Over the past 20 years he has taken thousands and thousands of photographs in the Kingdom.
Stevens published a unique photo book in 2015 titled Century Artist that was dedicated to Theay. Stevens decided to donate all of the proceeds to her after learning that her government pension was only 200,000 riel ($50) per month.
Stevens also took part in an art exhibition to honour the late Princess Buppha Devi organised by Sra’Art with 30 photographs of Apsara dancers posing with their elaborate hand gestures.
Eap – born in France to a Cambodian father and French mother – founded Sra’Art as a creative space dedicated to connecting Cambodian artists with art enthusiasts and anyone curious about the exciting developments happening in Cambodia’s vibrant new art scene.
S’ra Art began hosting monthly pop-up exhibitions in June of this year at Raffle’s Le Phnom 1929. They are also doing weekly activities during Raffles Le Royal’s signature brunch.
Each month Sra’Art will showcase the work of an artist from the contemporary Cambodian Art Scene with creative experiences for the attendees to participate in as well.
During the month of July, Sra’Art will organise live dance performances to pay tribute to Theay having dedicated her life to her art.
Eap tells The Post: “[Last weekend] at 12:30pm we presented a Tango dance performance accompanied by a live guitarist.”
Raffles is setting up a very well-organised safety protocol with distancing between tables, temperature checks, “Stop Covid” QR codes and waiters wearing masks.
“The performances are taking place in front of the tables at a safe distance and we only allow a limited number of people into the gallery at a time along with one of our staff members and all are required to wear masks,” Eap says.
On June 15, 2021, Em Theay passed away from natural causes at the age of 89 – finally resting after her long journey and decades of labouring to preserve the royal dance for younger generations.
Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote a letter of condolence to Theay’s family that demonstrated his profound respect for her legacy, which he summed up with elegant simplicity:
“Throughout her life Master Em Theay dedicated her precious time to the promotion and preservation of our nation’s glorious cultural arts.”
Sra’Art Gallery is located at #7/9E0 Sothearos Boulevard in Phnom Penh (three doors down from Wat Ounaloum).
Hommage to Em Theay by Arjay Stevens can be seen at Le Phnom 1929 (Raffles Le Royal Phnom Penh) in Daun Penh district’s Wat Phnom commune, opposite the National University of Management. The exhibition runs throughout the month of July.
For more information, contact Clive Bevan (EN) 081461711 or Socheata Yama (KH) 069444047 or visit S’ra Art’s Facebook page @sraartstudio.