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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - In Phnom Penh, circus out with a bang, not a whimper

In Phnom Penh, circus out with a bang, not a whimper

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Bar manager and conman Brandy balances on drums and planks while cast members from Phare Ponleu Selpak’s show watch. Photograph: Régis Binard/Phnom Penh Post

Last Saturday saw an impressive final Phnom Penh show by acclaimed Battambang circus troupe Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a bittersweet farewell for the troupe whose act at the Beeline Arena has been performed for the last time after poor ticket sales.

“Metal Khmer”, a contemporary piece blending the PPS art school’s sophisticated circus routine with electronic music from its band, a slick set  and modern dance routines was the last of six monthly shows in the capital “for the time being,” according to Khuon Det, founder and artistic director.

Saturday’s show, which was met with rapturous applause, was easily the boldest and most progressive show the troupe has performed yet, exploring homosexuality, infidelity and resistance to cultural traditions.

The band, decked out in PVC goth gear, played bass-heavy and electronic songs that matched the darker and raunchy themes of the performance.

Contortionist Phunam and acrobat Samnang played the well-dressed but dubious leading couple. Phunam, who twisted and bent herself into astonishing positions, found herself spurned after her man balanced, somersaulted and flipped from incredible heights with a barman – later gyrating with and almost kissing his new love interest.

The team of ten artists wrote the script collectively, Det said.

“There was a different atmosphere to this show . . . it was our most daring one yet.”

He said it tried to “show a new identity, modern and young Cambodia . . . it was representative of what the young people today see. The artists wanted to show the effects stigmatisation [of homosexuality] can have.”

Despite poor ticket sales, Det said the Beeline Arena shows were not pulled because they did not make sufficient money.

The decision to stop the troupe playing in Phnom Penh was also not to do with the February 8 opening of a Siem Reap branch of the internationally acclaimed circus, he said. Nightly performances in an open air theatre behind the Angkor National Museum (until a 400-seat big top arrives from France in May) have been well received by locals and tourists.

“The Siem Reap performances are entirely different,” Det said. “They are nightly shows and equipment and artists are all in place; there’s no travel involved and the logistics are better.”

“To expand too much in Phnom Penh would compromise the show . . . We want to create new and unusual performances for Phnom Penh – it’s a big arena, more professional and requires more,” he added.

“In Battambang, the audience are aware the performers are some of the younger students and shows rotate. In Siem Reap, it’s the same fixed show every night . . . We want to take time off to devote to creating new material, and this coincided with the contract [with Beeline] ending.”

But Charles Juilliard, marketing and events manager for Beeline Arena, said attendance at the Phnom Penh performances had not met expectations.

“We were expecting 1000 to 2000 spectators per show, and the maximum we had was 600 to 800. We simply did not make enough profit.”

Juilliard said he had wanted to create a more accessible circus show in the capital – tickets were priced at $4, while in Battambang they are sold for $10 ($5 for children) and in Siem Reap entry is $15.

“I really wanted this to be something new and attractive for Khmer and expat families . . . Perhaps we expected too much from this event. I approached international schools with special prices for students, and they weren’t interested,” he said.

The Phare team are now concentrating on two European tours in April and December, and focusing on spontaneous, free, short circus performances around Siem Reap as a marketing tool, Det said.

“We think the Beeline performances were successful, and we hope to return to Phnom Penh with more shows later this year.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at claire.knox@phnompenhpost.com

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