The circus is coming to town. But it’s providing more than a night of wonders and entertainment – jobs for young aspiring performers are opening up center stage.
Circus traditions in Cambodia can be traced back to the pre-Angkorian era. In Angkor Wat, several temples depict images of circus performances on their walls. Unfortunately, from the fall of Angkor in 1353 until the civil war in 1970, the circus became nearly obsolete. That all changed in 1980, when the National Circus School of Cambodia opened its doors.
With help from Russian and Vietnamese trainers, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Arts enrolled its first 45 circus students. The majority of those students were orphans whose parents died during the Pol Pot regime. Now, a generation later, most students come from provinces near Phnom Penh.
The Phnom Penh circus
There are a few different ways one can become involved in circus life. Any student enrolled in the Cambodian School of Fine Art is eligible for free training as long as they hold Khmer citizenship. The school is also open for private classes, where for $1,000 a year or $120 a month, anyone can learn the art of acrobatic tumbling, handstands, flexibility, conditioning, contortion, juggling, hula hoop, trapeze, or silks… just to name a few.
The school is located on National Assembly Street, directly opposite the National Assembly of Cambodia. It is a large open space, with yellow walls and many sunlit windows. Large mirrors line the entrance, where you will encounter some interesting characters, including Vannak Vong , who started out as a student but after 15 years with the company, and a bachelorette degree in choreography, is now a teacher.
He explains the misconceptions about the Khmer circus that he has faced in Cambodia. “Some Khmer people are accusatory, saying that the circus is not good, especially for women. They think it is not good for girls to take part in the circus, but actually it is not like that; circus is an exercise. For me it makes me feel motivated, and when I perform I have the ability to make the audience happy and show my talent.”
Though not many women currently hold important roles in main stage performances, Pisey Phon Chan is an exception. She has been part of the circus for the past 12 years, and has been a teacher at the school for the last three. She explains some of the issues she faced when she told her family about joining circus school. “When I told my parents I wanted to change schools they told me that it is impossible for girls to join the circus. They thought girls should study classic dancing or other traditional skills for women.”
Chan explains that her parents are actually quite supportive now. They even go to her performances to cheer her on. She hopes that this new young Khmer generation of women won’t be afraid to join the circus.
The circus has had to halt their performances for the last few months due to a large tear in their tent. However, it is currently being repaired, and they still hold small performances whenever possible. They are also available for private events. Although they don’t collaborate as much as they used to, there is a connection in message and purpose between the circus in Phnom Penh and Phare, the famed circus in Siem Reap.
The Siem Reap circus
In 1994, another art school called Phare Ponleu Selpak opened up in Battambang province near the Thai border. The founders were a young group of Khmer people who had come back from refugee camps in Thailand and discovered kids in Battambang suffering from trauma, poverty and abuse due to the war. They opened a school as a form of art therapy for the kids.
Since then the school has grown tremendously and now boasts a renowned circus training program. They have received solid media attention for their unusual style and flair, which has been compared to the likes of Cirque du Soleil. What truly sets Phare Cambodia circus apart is their ability to intertwine traditional, political, and contemporary Khmer life and make it relevant and accessible to all, set to the soundtrack of classic Cambodian rock or modern pop music.
Phare has had an opportunity to travel the world, showcasing their talents in America, Japan, Australia, and the UK – to name just a few. This past July they had an opportunity to perform for refugees in Rwanda, where the audience were not strangers to tales of genocide and human suffering. It was a deeply intimate and important experience, as former victims of genocide used their artistic abilities to spread hope and love to refugees in Rwanda.
One thing that both circuses are proud to boast is the absence of circus animals. All performances are composed solely of human artists. If anyone is interested in seeing the circus in Phnom Penh, they can reach them through their website: www.ncsoc.com. Tickets for the show cost $5. Previously performances were held every other weekend, but for now it is best to check their website until repairs have been completed.
If you are headed out to Siem Reap and are interested in checking out Phare, they hold nightly performances and tickets cost anywhere between $10 to $35 depending on the seat location and age of the guest. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made through their website: www.pharecircus.org
BY: Eduardo Culbeaux