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Circus coming to Siem Reap – permanently

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In this circus scene, a woman and one of her lovers dance the tango, a dance of passion and violence, reflecting their tempestuous relationship. Photograph: Coralie Morillon

Roll up, roll up, the circus is coming to Siem Reap. Renowned Battambang circus school Phare Ponleu Selpak is opening a second base in town in early 2013.

The venture will be called, ‘Phare, the Cambodian Circus’, and will be initially housed in a 400-seat grand chapiteau, or big top, with daily performances featuring professional artists from Battambang and Siem Reap.

Phare Ponleu Selpak, meaning ‘the brightness of arts’ was conceived in 1994 by eight young Cambodians returning from refugee camps at the Thai border, who used art as a means of coping with trauma.

Young Khmers from disadvantaged backgrounds were trained in circus skills, theatre performance, music and visual arts. Since then the school has flourished, with the circus theatre group performing internationally including in France and, this summer, at London’s artistic hub, the world-famous Southbank Centre.  

In October 2012 the Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPS Enterprise) was set up with the aim, according to co-director Huot Dara, of “finding job opportunities for Cambodian professional artists, improving their income and livelihood and also to generate financial support to the mother NGO, Phare Ponleu Selpak, in sustaining and expanding her educational, artistic and social programs.”  

PPS’s first project is the new Siem Reap performing arts centre, Phare.

Like the original Phare Ponleu Selpak, Phare’s shows will include story-lines as well as breathtaking acrobatics, aerial acts and dance. 

Huot says; “The show concept is ‘new circus’ or theatre circus. They are story-telling, choreographic productions that take the audience on a journey of experiencing Cambodian culture, identity, society and livelihood.

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“There are a good number of shows accompanied by live music and/or live singing of approximately one hour. The stories usually deal with Cambodian social and everyday livelihood with the purpose of entertainment and education.”

But, unlike the Battambang circus school, Phare will only use professional artists.

“The big top in Siem Reap will feature only professional productions – no student shows,” Huot says, “Professional circus artists are those who have graduated from a minimum of eight years of training in PPS. There will be regular swaps of shows each quarter, with new shows being introduced depending on artists’ availability.”

The first scheduled performance at Phare is Putho! – meaning “Oh my god!” This is an allegory on relations between boys and girls in Cambodian society.

The humorous show will include acrobatics, juggling, balancing, tightrope walking and contortion techniques, with live music accompaniment on traditional instruments as well as guitars, drums and keyboards.

Putho! will be performed by 11 young circus artists – nine males and two females – all of whom spent a year in international circus schools in France or Vietnam to complete their artistic and technical training. The show, created in 2008, has toured three times in Europe as well as in Japan, Singapore and Thailand, and played over 250 times.

Phare’s exact location in Siem Reap is yet to be confirmed but Huot says the big top will have state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, and will be centrally located, “within five minutes commute from the night market and Pub Street area.”

At a later date, PPS plans to open a permanent circus complex in Siem Reap to accommodate an anticipated growing audience.

“The complex,” Huot says, “will comprise a 600-seat circus venue, a restaurant, accommodations for artists and a merchandise shop which will sell artworks by PPS artists and circus-related handicraft.”

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