Thavro Phim is a distinquished classically-trained Cambodian dancer . He entered Cambodia's School of Fine Arts in part because he was from a long line of prominent Cambodian artists - his great-uncle Hang Tun Hak was Rector of the Royal University of Fine Arts, a respected playwright and the country's prime minister; his great-great uncle, Sang Sarun, was the country's most famous lakhon bassac (folk opera) star; and his father, Phim Chhieng, was one of the founders of the Royal University of Fine Arts. Thavro became a dance faculty member of the University of Fine Arts - he taught classical and folk dance and performed abroad with the school's troupe. Part of the first post-war generation in Cambodia to study traditional dance, he and his peers crisscrossed the Cambodian countryside, performing as part of the government's plan to capture the hearts of its impoverished and war-weary populace, and to offer them a sense of continuity and history through old mytho-historical dramas, comic interplay, and folk dances. In 1993 he relocated to the United States and has taught and performed widely, including San Jose, California, where he started a class for boys in both the 'monkey' role in Cambodian dance and chhayam, comic improvised dance and drumming. He is one of only three professionally-trained Cambodian dancers specializing in Hanuman, the magical white monkey role, living in the US. He moved to Philadelphia in December 2001 and is a resident artist for the Philadelphia Folklore Project.
His story was told in the 1999 documentary film by director Janet Gardner called Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia. Thavro was just three years old when Pol Pot came to power and enforced his genocidal regime. He lost his father, brother and grandfather to the Khmer Rouge. The documentary looks at Cambodia’s cultural history and the ancient empire of Angkor when the Khmer ruled most of Southeast Asia. It takes its audience through the Pol Pot years and conveys the preciousness of the dancers who survived the country's maelstrom. It tells of the transmission of a culture from generation to generation, mourning for what was lost and celebrating the dance that has survived in the midst of death, displacement, and turmoil. Thavro and his wife, anthropologist Toni Shapiro Phim, who studied dance in the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border herself, also tell the story of their work together, their romance and eventual marriage. Read a review of the film in the Comments section.