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The Cambodian Circus

By Carol Wright

More than just a circus, Phare performers use theater, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories; historical, folk and modern

In the spotlight, a young boy stands on his hands, flips his legs over his head and with his toes pulls back an arrow on a bow and lets it fly to puncture a balloon swathed in black material that falls away to reveal bright happy colours. The action goes beyond just impressing the audience; the balloon symbolises the black days of Cambodia’s repressive Khmer Rouge regime.For this is no ordinary circus act. This is the Phare big top in Siem Reap set just near the Angkor Wat museum. This Cambodian Circus has no ring master, no animals; just a small group of young men and women showing off their arts of contortion, juggling, fire dancing, tightrope walking, vaulting, mime and acrobatics while telling the stories of modern Cambodia sometimes mixed with traditional tales. While highly entertaining, Phare provides the viewer with a unique insight into the effect of the Khmer Rouge rule perhaps even more effectively than seeing the horrors of the Killing Fields and war museums in Cambodia. A rape scene in the Sokha play is a dance like sequence yet none the less chilling for that. Sometimes harsh, modern realities are softened by the traditional Cambodian dance epitomised in the graceful carvings of sinuous Aspara dancers in the friezes of the Angkor Wat temples. Carvings also show that the traditions of circus performance in Cambodia date as far aback as the sixth century when Cambodian kings commanded circus performances for festivals and special ceremonies. In recent times in the 1960’s dance forms and circus arts flourished and were encouraged by King Norodom Sihanouk who composed music; (his son, the present king, is a western trained ballet dancer.) Pol Pot put an abrupt end to this abolishing all arts and artistic expression and executing many artists. Between 1975 and 1979, two million Cambodians died leaving the country without culture and repressed to the extent that still they feel it easier to express their feelings through the arts rather than talk about them. There is a strong belief in ghosts some of which appear in the Phare plays. The young performers did not live through the horrors of Pol Pot but they grew up with its legacy.Nine Cambodians who spent their childhood in a refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border were taught art by a French volunteer worker as a way of coping with their traumas. When the nine returned home to the area around Battambang about a hundred miles south west of Siem Reap, they gave free drawing classes to street children. They found devastation, poverty, abuse and despair and decided to help the rural poor of the area by creating a school to teach visual and performing arts partly to revive traditions and partly to provide something to help overcome the effects of the war. In 1994 they set up Phare Ponleu Selpak (‘the brightness of the arts’) to create educational and career opportunities for those in the area based in Anh Chanh village in Battambang district as well as addressing social needs of the community.The non profit, non government association now runs a school, which provides free education from kindergarten to High School levels for 1,200 pupils. It also has special three year courses for the visual arts for 340 students including painting, animation, graphic arts, and four year courses for 318 students including dance, theatre, music and circus. Visitors to the area can take one of the daily guided campus tours that show students performing traditional Cambodian dances, perfecting new circus tricks, painting, playing music or seeing an animated film created by pupils. The Cambodian Circus school in 2013 created the Phare big top and graduates of the school form groups to not only performs but also write their plays, create the music and songs in them and each night an artist on stage paints a picture echoing the story and usually depicting the horrors of past Cambodian life. The circus has attracted an 100,000 strong audience so far and has toured abroad as well performing at high end ceremonies and private events. Graduates have appeared with the French Cirque du Soleil and studied at the Montreal School of Circus.The money from the tickets, boutique and dining facilities in the Big Top area mainly goes back to help the school. Each evening before the hour long show, the audience can browse the Phare Boutique, which sells artistic works and music CDs created by students and local craftsmen, take a snack, drink or try Cambodian dishes such as fish amok and beef kroeung at open air tables under colourful lanterns hung on poles.And then the magic of the show begins; an exhilarating blast of action, song and dance. There are a number of stories written by the performers that alternate at the Big Top. In Sokha, the tale of village youngsters with their happy lives blighted by arrival of the Khmer Rouge who are depicted in black with evil white masks, is played out eventually till rock and roll and a modern happier life triumphs. Issues are addressed: Eclipse tells of a rejected, bullied disfigured young man who is transformed into a beautiful woman. The play uses an old folk tale with original music and Aspara dancing. Influence deals with the survival of the fittest, domination and manipulation, here mixing drama, circus and puppetry to explore struggles of power and survival. Khmer Metal explores the mores of customers in a dingy Phnom Penh bar including modern touches like a customer’s iPad being stolen and sold back to him. This play mixes live rock music with the circus acts while providing a glimpse of urban Cambodia. The plots sound grim and in many ways they are but they are put over with such verve, passion and amazing acrobatics that the audience is spellbound. The few performers fill the stage; there is no elaborate scenery, everything is conveyed with just the use of rope, metal tubing, some rice baskets and piles of cardboard boxes. As the organisation says ‘we believe in the power of the arts as a tool for human development and social change’. Certainly out of a poor and violent background, Phare’s organisation has not only created a big school that fosters the inherent artistic talents in its pupils, but also provides social support for eight hundred families in three communities.


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