Sin Soneath, 14, has taken six years to perfect this.
ucked away in a quiet corner of Phnom Penh's University of Fine Arts is the one-ring
National Circus School.
The university is better known as a training school for Cambodia's classical dance
and music, but circus performing is also a traditional art with a history that stretches
back to Angkorian times and beyond, said Nuth Samony, the Director of the National
"There are carvings of circus performers on the walls of theAngkor temples -
especially on the Bayon. I felt very proud when I saw these carvings that depicted
scenes of animal training, tightrope walking, and acrobatics," said Samony of
his profession's long heritage.
The circus school is housed in a round, dimly-lit building. When a visitor's eyes
adjust to the interior's gloom they are greeted by the sight of whirling juggling
pins, rubber-like children contorting themselves into improbable positions, and acrobats
performing remarkable feats of balance and agility.
Samony has been in the circus business for over 20 years. "The Cambodian circus
was set up in 1980, and I studied circus management in the Soviet Union from 1981
to 1986," he said.
From 1980 to 1989 Russian and Vietnamese trainers taught at the school.
"Though circus has returned to Cambodia, its style is now European, but we are
doing research on how to adapt tour performances to Cambodia's circus traditions,"
he said of the circus's effort to add Khmer clothes and music to make their performance
more culturally distinctive.
Aspiring circus performers now must undergo nine years of training. For the first
three years they train in all disciplines before choosing a specialty. Students tend
to come from poor families from the provinces. They train from 7 to 11:30 most mornings
then attend regular classes in the afternoon.
This school is a juggling act for young trainees hoping for a performing career
at the end of it.
Samony admits there are few job opportunities for circus performers in Cambodia apart
from the circus school itself which hires a few graduates as trainers. In spite of
such limitations, he hopes to expand the scope of the school by adding an animal
training course to the National Circus School's curriculum in the near future.
Samony's animial training school plans are tinged with the sad memory of the last
performing animal that the school owned.
In the 1980s the school had a baby elephant named Kuch that was donated by the Chairman
of the National Election Committee, Chheng Phon. "He was very difficult for
us to train because he needed lots of milk, but at the same time we had to help our
students who faced financial hardship.
"The person who looked after it got married and paid less attention to the orphan
elephant, who needed a friend," said Samony. "He [the elephant] became
sick because of starvation, and died."
Nevertheless, Samony hopes donors will step forward to re-establish the animal training
"At first we would like to train dogs and monkeys," he said, adding that
the school would need not only the animals, but also the money to feed them.
In the meantime the National Circus School will have to be content with training
Trainer Chhut Nok was a circus student in the early 1980s. During his career he performed
in Laos, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union. Nok believes today's students have
a more difficult time than when his generation trained. Impoverished students do
not eat a proper diet and are unable to train as hard as hard as they would like.
"We feel isolated from the Ministry of Culture. Though we are part of the ministry,
they pay more attention to the classical dance and music departments. The ministry
keeps us in limbo and I am worried that the school might come to an end."
Preparing for that day, Nok has a second job as an electrical wholesaler.
Sin Soneath, 14, has been training for six years and can twist her body to a degree
that would hospitalize normal people.
While kneeling on the floor her trainer pokes a finger along Soneath's spine. When
the right spot is located the trainer replaces her finger with a knee and gives the
young contortionist's shoulders a vigorous tug. Soneath grunts in satisfaction and
resumes tying herself into knots.
Though training has been very painful for her "waist and bones", Soneath's
favorite discipline is "body balance". Her dream is to become a circus
trainer one day.
For these young men on the way to a circus career, life is not easy.
Kong Kosal, 19, is in the last stages of his specialty training. "I love juggling
very much. I used to perform at Wat Phnom, and during Chinese New Year celebrations.
I get paid $10 when I juggle."
Kosal is not certain if there is a viable future for jugglers in Cambodia. In the
meantime, he works as a motodup to earn a living as well as training.
Phouk Narin, who began juggling training in 1980, laments the decreasing popularity
of the circus in Cambodia.
"Before, people liked the circus very much. Now the circus is in decline because
of video movies. We can rarely perform because we have no money for costumes or to
hire musical performers."
Tightrope instructor In Yanee trained in the Soviet Union between 1981 and 1985.
Though challenging, she thought learning circus skills was easy compared with the
hardships she endured during the Khmer Rouge regime.
People liked circuses very much when Cambodia was under Vietnamese control, but "sexy
stage shows" are now all the rage in Cambodia, Yanee lamented.
"Now it is hard to compete with the short-skirt dancers," said Yanee.