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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Acrobatic art with aim to heal

Acrobatic art with aim to heal

Jim Morrison, in a typically existential moment, once offered the advice that to expose oneself to one’s deepest fear was the only way to conquer fear itself. So goes the premise of Sokha, a striking, multi-layered circus performance by Battambang’s admired Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) troupe, set to be performed in Phnom Penh this Saturday at the city’s Beeline arena.

Acrobatic roots at Angkor

Engravings at the Bayon temple in Siem Reap’s Angkor complex. Photograph: Chris Samsong
Contortion and circus performance in Cambodia can be traced back to ancient Khmer culture, according to the members of Phare Ponleu Selpak circus troupe.

They point to the bas-reliefs on the Bayon temple at Angkor (right), which appear to depict groups of men balancing on top of one another.

“In the Sihanouk days, before 1970, we had a strong culture of acrobatics and gymnastics. Those bas-reliefs from the 12th century are proof of a longer history,” said Bun Rith, director of the Battambang-based troupe.

The performance centres on the story of Sokha, a Khmer Rouge war child and survivor unable to come to terms with her past who finds an outlet for her fears through drawing scenes of the chaos.

Featuring circus tricks, acrobatics, visual arts and traditional Khmer music and dance, the story winds through Sokha’s experience during and after the civil war.

“Sokha is consumed by guilt and hides underground, both metaphorically and physically. In darkness she is alone amongst a chaotic symphony of bombs. She then draws the darkness and finds an outlet for her fears through painting and revives her soul. She has to confront her fears head-on to eradicate them,” Khuon Det, founder and artistic director of PPS, said.

Det, now 40, said he drew heavily on his own experience as a young Khmer Rouge survivor while working on the performance. After he fled to a Thai border camp at the age of eight, Det, together with PPS’s other founders who were also at the camp, found solace through painting. Years later the group formed the arts hub and school for disadvantaged children in Ochar Commune, on the outskirts of Battambang.

Although the organisation has a team of social workers, school teachers and carers, and feeds much of the surrounding community, its main focus is to reinvigorate the arts in the country. Almost 500 children from the poor commune take part in painting, cartooning, acting, circus acrobatics, music and theatre at the centre’s three schools.

“Art was completely shattered under the Khmer Rouge. I want to draw on my experience and all of the other survivors. I know being able to express myself through art was how I was able to get through it all,” said Det.

One of those is Yam Sopheak, an 18-year old acrobat who will perform on Saturday. During a show several weeks ago in Battambang, he winked at the audience and flounced about his diabolo, a popular circus prop in which a small reel is balanced, juggled, whirled and tossed on a single string.

Sopheak – his defined muscles the sign of rigorous, regular training sessions – performs with the diabolo and dances, flips and walks a tightrope with up to 10 other teenagers at least twice a week.

The youngest of two children, Sopheak helped his parents scrape together enough money to buy rice through, like many other children in the commune, collecting rubbish from a tip in his Anh Chanh village home.

By chance he met a PPS social worker, joined the Child Development Centre and moved into a dance program. At first he would hover by the entrance of the circus room and dream of learning how to walk the tightrope, before he joined the class.

“When I was 14 I joined the circus team and it has become so, so important for me. I strongly believe we can all tell our stories and the country’s stories through our circus performance,” he said.

Sopheak earns a wage for each performance and said he is now able to help support his ageing parents.

“This whole community has changed through PPS – nearly all of the children now attend school and the artistic school, people feel really bright about the future.”

His director, Bun Rith, hopes that the sense of optimism carries over into the performance, and says that artistic performance has the ability to heal emotional scars all over the world.

“(We) use the spectacle of circus and dance not only to entertain (our) audience but to show the innovative re-telling of stories from (our) Khmer Rouge experience and there is a sense of optimism in the piece,” he said.

Sokha will be performed this Saturday at 6pm at Beeline Arena.

PPS perform a different show in Phnom Penh each month. Tickets are $3 each and are available at Monument Books and Blue Pumpkin.

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at



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