A World Class Circus Rises From The Ruins In Cambodia
Phare, The Cambodian Circus, a story about how can creativity can rise from hardship and how some children in Cambodia have turned grit to brilliance
I came to Siem Reap to teach last year, and after seeing a Phare show and being moved by their story, I decided to help spread the word about them by writing for their blog. Phare, pronounced “far,” is the one-year-old social enterprise of the arts organization Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), located three hours away in the city of Battambang. There, children from disadvantaged families come from all over town to get a free education, and if they choose, to attend the arts school where they can study circus arts. The organization’s name translates to “brightness of art.”
The school was miraculously born from the efforts of nine refugee children in the mid ’90s as they used artistic expression to communicate the trauma of war. Once these children were able to return to their hometown, they founded PPS. Offering students the opportunity to study a variety of visual and performing arts, the school has given students an opportunity to develop their craft and use their skills to make a living.
In 1998, the founders noticed that their arts programs weren’t capturing the attention of the most severely marginalized children in the area, and so they decided to open the circus arts school. The program has been an incredible success, and for the most engaged students, has resulted in elite level skill development in a variety of contemporary circus art disciplines, especially acrobatics and juggling.
Fast-forward to 2014, and all performers in Phare in Siem Reap are students or graduates of the PPS circus school in Battambang. Many performers were actually born in the same refugee camps as the founders of PPS. With the help of international artistic directors and the performers themselves, PPS creates full artistic productions that travel to Siem Reap and provide entertainment for visitors visiting from around the world.
Having been in operation for just over a year, the Siem Reap circus attraction has gained explosive momentum. Topping the list on TripAdvisor as the top non-temple attraction in Siem Reap — Angkor Wat is understandably the city’s main attraction — the shows have even begun to rise in popularity beyond some of the more widely known ancient attractions in the area. More importantly, the popularity of the acts has served to fulfill Phare’s primary goal in establishing to create a gainful career opportunity for its artists and bring money back to their parent school. This is sustainable tourism at its best.
The uniquely Cambodian performances are thematically infused with national history and culture and include tales of supernatural occurrences, of hardships faced by Khmer children as their homeland struggles to develop, of an outcast man seeking the acceptance of his community, and of the risqué drama present in the Phnom Penh bar scene — all performed exclusively by Cambodian artists and set to live music.
Daringly modern and beyond the traditional circus format, Phare blends contortion, juggling, acrobatics, balancing and aerial arts with modern dance forms and theater. As the art scene in Cambodia revives itself in the post-war era, Phare’s productions document the renaissance of the country’s creative expression while drawing upon modern circus techniques. With a devoted belief in the power of artistic expression that gave birth to the organization, Phare is an inspirational force in the growth of modern Cambodia.
Though these sensational performances are a worthy attraction in and of themselves, while watching the performance, I can’t help to think about how only a few decades ago, intense human atrocities were occurring on a massive scale, and there was a group of children who were still able to find hope through the strength of their imaginations as they went about lives.
Even in their youth, this band of children observed the contagiously healing power of creativity, and made it their goal to share this “brightness of art.” And this brightness is precisely what you are watching when you attend a Phare production.
The performers you observe flying through the air and moving so gracefully are the product of that initial spark of imaginative hope during an immensely dark era. They chose to walk into a new school from the dusty streets of their recovering hometown and experiment with their imaginations. This is the exhilarating feeling of brightness you experience at a Phare show.
Brian is a college counselor, rock climber, social worker and amateur acrobat, and has taught and helped high school students on their journey towards life after school in Honduras, India, Cambodia and Portland. He now lives in Siem Reap where he flosses, survives only on fresh fruit smoothies and works with Phare The Cambodian Circus on their marketing team. You can stay updated on Phare’s happenings at PhareCambodianCircus.org.