Earlier this week, the National Assembly stood isolated. Military police surrounded the area with razor wire, anxious that opposition supporters might take their protests there. Shutters were down on local shops and it was unusually easy for pedestrians to cross the road. You could hear a pin drop.
But opposite the National Assembly building, almost hidden away behind the Phnom Penh Centre, stands the capital’s new circus tent. And over the past 10 days a French trapeze artist has been passing on her skills to students from the Royal
University of Fine Arts (RUFA) within its walls.
The name Regard Sur (the literal translation: “Looking upon”) refers not only to the outcome of these rehearsals – two performances at the circus tent this weekend – but to the artistic process itself.
The project, a brainchild of the trapeze artist Marie Mercadal and photographer and videographer Francois Alaitru, and facilitated in Phnom Penh by the Institut Francais, aims to use Mercadal’s workshops to document different types of circus art in their varying social contexts around the world.
In November 2011, the pair took the project to the war-torn city of Mitrovica in Kosovo, working with both Serbs and Albanians who had never practised circus art before.
But circus art certainly is practised in Cambodia. While simple acts such as juggling were already popular in rural villages, the Vietnamese popularised circus art during their occupation in the 1980s.
However, Phnom Penh’s only circus tent, located just off Mao Tse-Toung Boulevard, closed down a while ago, turning into Spark nightclub. Last year, Phare Ponleu Selpak circus company came to Beeline Stadium, but until recently, Cambodia’s hub of circus art was in the western city of Battambang.
Olivier Planchon, the Cultural Attache at the Institut Francais, who commissioned the work, said: “With the help of the Vietnamese, the Ministry of Culture here has now built this circus tent in Phnom Penh. It’s well equipped, with 1,000 seats, and what is most important is that it offers the students from the circus department the opportunity to develop their skills.
“They are very good modern artists in France, and they have very good classical skills that can help the younger circus artists to develop. We hope to forge a long-term relationship between French circus artists and Cambodian circus artists – I think it’s something with a very strong potential.”
So with the students already learning circus art, where does Mercadal come in? A simple answer: the trapeze.
When the Vietnamese brought circus into the country they trained Cambodian artists in many disciplines, but the trapeze wasn’t on their radar.
During the past 10 days, Mercadal has been passing on her trapeze skills – with the help of a French-Khmer translator – to the 12 young artists.
They will perform what they’ve learned in a 10-minute exposition at the beginning of the weekend’s show, which will go on to feature a trapeze performance from Mercadal herself, followed by a performance by the National Circus of Cambodia.
Meanwhile, Alaitru has documented the workshops, filmed rehearsals and interviewed students. He aims to use his work to create an exhibition about the relationship between the circus and wider society, and take the project, loosely translated from his project proposal, “out of the artistic sphere and into the social sphere”.
“In the first week I just took a few pictures of the students, and I did a lot of interviews with the director, the teacher and the children. From this, I discovered that not many people in Phnom Penh knew about the circus, so I wanted to organise a picture with the artists outside the circus, around the city, to understand the local situation,” he said.
Mercadal, a former dancer, explained: “Francois is working in a social context, proposing an artistic project around the photos. So my training is for the here and now, but his art is for a long-term project about the cultural context of the circus. What is the social impact of the circus? What can circus bring on a social and human level? Why is the circus here? How is it in Cambodia and how is it in Kosovo?”
“It’s different in each country – so in Kosovo we worked with young people who had never practised circus, but here the students are very, very good. We adapt the project to wherever we’re going,” Alaitru added.
So, after Cambodia, which country are the pair off to next? They are also keen to go to Cuba and, Mercadal said, Egypt: “But for Egypt we’ll need to wait. But we will wait!”