Cir­cus troupe cap­tures Cam­bo­dia’s con­torted his­tory

The China Post - - LIFE - BY SUY SE

Bal­anc­ing on her hands, a young con­tor­tion­ist throws her legs over her head and slowly draws back a bow with her toes, be­fore loos­ing off an ar­row into a bal­loon cov­ered by a black shroud.

The bal­loon bursts and the au­di­ence erupts into ap­plause in recog­ni­tion of the artistry of the feat, but also at the sym­bolic punc­tur­ing of the ter­rors of the mur­der­ous Kh­mer Rouge era that evis­cer­ated Cam­bo­dia in the late 1970s.

Pin Phu­nam, 23, who plays the ti­tle role in the cir­cus show “Sokha,” says ev­ery move­ment aims to tell the story of a pe­riod of re­cent his­tory she did not live through, but that hangs over her coun­try.

An es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion Cam­bo­di­ans died un­der the Kh­mer Rouge be­tween 1975-1979.

“Peo­ple don’t talk about the Kh­mer Rouge, I don’t know why. Maybe it is too painful,” Phu­nam says be­fore the show, which ex­plores the coun­try’s bloody past us­ing a group of jug­glers, ac­ro­bats and con­tor­tion­ists in the north­west­ern tourist town of Siem Reap.

On April 17 the na­tion marked the 40th an­niver­sary of the tri­umphant march of Com­mu­nist sol­diers into the Cam­bo­dian cap­i­tal, end­ing a bloody civil war with a U.S.-backed gen­eral.

But the date also sig­naled the start of a hard-line rule that turned the na­tion into a work­house where star­va­tion, mur­der and over­work killed a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion.

While the per­form­ers from the cir­cus troupe were born long af­ter the regime fell, they have mes­mer­ized au­di­ences with their recre­ation of that pe­riod since first stag­ing Sokha two years ago.

“Even though we don’t have any ex­pe­ri­ence of the Kh­mer Rouge regime, we can tell the story through our artis­tic AFP.

skills,” Phu­nam

From Poverty to Big Top


In­stead, like many of the artists from the Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak Cir­cus School, she draws on dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ences of her own.

Phu­nam was born to a poor fam­ily in west­ern Bat­tam­bang prov­ince and spent her child­hood scav­eng­ing for junk to sell.

“I had a drunken and vi­o­lent fa­ther ... I saw my fa­ther fight­ing with my mum ev­ery night af­ter he came back from drink­ing and gam­bling with friends,” she said.

Then, when she was just seven, Phu­nam joined the nearby Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak school run by for­mer Cam­bo­dian refugees to help dis­ad­van­taged lo­cal young­sters through art.

It was there she dis­cov­ered her pas­sion for con­tor­tion and the ex­pert help to hone her ex­tra­or­di­nary skill.

A free public school founded af­ter the art cen­ter now teaches 1,200 pupils.

Just un­der half of them at­tend the spe­cial­ist mu­sic, art, theater and cir­cus schools pro­vid­ing rare op­por­tu­ni­ties to chil­dren from poor fam­i­lies in one of Southeast Asia’s least de­vel­oped coun­tries.

In 2013 Phare opened a cir­cus in the tourist hub of Siem Reap, home to Cam­bo­dia’s famed Angkor tem­ple com­plex, to give its grad­u­ates a global stage.

“We de­cided to open this big top (cir­cus tent) as a pro­fes­sional venue for the artists who grad­u­ated from Bat­tam­bang to earn a living,” said cir­cus op­er­a­tion manager Xavier Gobin.

‘Cir­cus changed my life’

Gobin, a for­mer ballet dancer from France who moved to Cam­bo­dia eight years ago, has also taken the troupe on tour around the world from Ja­pan to Italy.

Tack­ling “so­cial is­sues or themes pro­found in Cam­bo­dian so­ci­ety” lies at the heart of their shows, he said.

Cir­cus per­for­mance in Cam­bo­dia dates back to the Angko­rian pe­riod, which lasted from the ninth to the 15th Cen­tury, with ac­ro­batic per­for­mances etched into carv­ings on the walls of tem­ples at Siem Reap.

Civil war and the Kh­mer Rouge de­stroyed the art and to­day per­form­ers like Phu­nam are determined to re­vive it.

“The cir­cus changed my life ... I can do dif­fi­cult things that nor­mal peo­ple can­not do,” said the con­tor­tion­ist, adding it was not only her liveli­hood but a medium to help her un­der­stand her own coun­try.

Nearly 170 kilo­me­ters (100 miles) away at Phare’s cir­cus school in Bat­tam­bang, where Phu­nam first started her jour­ney, dozens of as­pir­ing young artists are be­gin­ning their own.

Per­fect­ing som­er­saults or bal­anc­ing their en­tire body weight on one hand, a new co­hort are prac­tic­ing mind-bog­gling tricks they hope will change their lives.

“I came here be­cause I want to be­come a pro­fes­sional cir­cus artist,” said 17-year-old or­phan Phat Sreyleak.

“I want to per­form abroad ... I want to show for­eign­ers my tal­ent,” she said be­fore re­turn­ing to her trapeze.


This photo taken on March 22 shows Cam­bo­dian artists in a bal­anc­ing act dur­ing a cir­cus per­for­mance in Siem Reap prov­ince.

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