Its name means “the brightness of art”, but the origins of Battambang’s PHARE Ponleu Selpak lie in a place not traditionally associated with either brightness or art.
The idea of using art and express-ion to help young refugees overcome the trauma of war emerged from drawing workshops at the Site 2 Refugee Camp, on the Thai border, in 1986.
When the group returned to Battambang eight years later, they founded a visual-arts school on the outskirts of town so they could share their skills with local children.
Over the years, PHARE has developed into something much more.
As well as the 500 children who study music, circus skills, the theatre and visual arts at the centre, about 1,300 children attend a mainstream school where they study the Khmer curriculum.
According to Vincent Guffond, who works in PHARE’s communicat-ion department, the centre acts as a bridge between mainstream and artistic schooling, allowing the arts to draw students towards traditional education as well as the other way round.
Relatively recent additions include an animation studio and a graphic design, illustration and editing studio.
“This was for former students at the visual-arts school, because it was a bit hard for them to find a job,” Guffond says.
“Here, they can acquire skills that they can use in different countries.”
Students also learn life skills such as sewing and tailoring.
But it’s the circus school that has earned PHARE Ponleu Selpak an international reputation.
Each year, students go on two tours to Europe as well as smaller trips around the region. Last year, there were 10 international tours in total.
“Most of our students can go to foreign countries to share their exper-iences with other artists,” Guffond says.
A highlight of PHARE’s programme is the Tini Tinou international circus festival held in Phnom Penh and Battambang each year.
“We always want to mix with other artists,” Guffond says. “Last year, at least eight nationalities participated in the festival, so it’s a good way to improve circus skills.”
Inside the circus school, children are practising their tumbling, acrobatic and juggling skills.
Sam Sary, 30, has taught at the school for three years. And, like most of the teachers, he is a former student himself.
“I started in 1998, when I was 14 or 15 years old,” Sam Sary says.
Today, he’s teaching acrobatic skills to a bunch of children aged between eight and 12. Although Sam Sary attended the visual-arts school before joining the circus, he prefers the performance arts.
“I like everything that relates to the arts, but my favourite is the circus,” he says.
“Circus performance helps me to forget my hardship in childhood.”
Across the hall, Ouk Phary, 16, is practising her circus skills.
“I’ve been coming here for four years,” she says. “I learn acrobatics and juggling. During the vacations, I learn music as well.”
Ouk Phary’s favourite activity is acrobatics. “But if we’re not careful we can hurt ourselves,” she says.
Ouk Phary is eager for her first performance in public. Her group is the next in line to enter the big top, once the current performers go on tour.
“I want to perform,” she says.
Ouk Phary is realistic, however, about where her future employment opportunities lie.
“The circus cannot help us for our whole life, so I have to learn to be a tailor as well,” she says.
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY