Things have taken a dark turn at Phare, The Cambodian Circus, with a Siem Reap run of Sokha, the story of a girl who is haunted by her memories of the Khmer Rouge but finds the strength to overcome her fears and become an inspiration to others.
Sokha was written in 2010 by Khuon Det, one of the co-founders of Phare, and has since been shown in Thailand and Europe, as well as some venues in Cambodia, apart from Siem Reap until now. It will run here until September 20.
The work is an electrifying mixture of music, art, acrobatics, juggling, high-wire and high jinks through which Khuon tells his own life story of a happy childhood that is crushed by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, and the struggle to recover from the nightmares that gripped him and the Cambodian people in the aftermath as they worked to rebuild themselves and their country.
With Sokha, Khoun aims to create a bridge between the generations in Cambodia. He hopes that the young can learn about the suffering of the past, and reflect on the things they need today to make them strong.
“I want to show the young generation what happened before, because they don’t always know how to research it,” he says.
“They don’t always understand the past, and that through adversity we can learn how to become strong, we can learn to have confidence and know that we have the ability to overcome our problems.
“Life is not just about the material things of eating and drinking and all that. We need to pay attention to our heart, to what’s inside us too. And from there we can learn to be strong.”
It might not be immediately obvious to the audience that the story is Khuon’s own, not least because he has chosen to tell it from the viewpoint of a woman, Sokha, played by renowned contortionist, Phunam Pin.
He chose this as a challenge to orthodoxies concerning the role and abilities of women in Cambodia.
“In the past, there was a feeling that women are not strong, that they stay in the home and that is all, while men are strong and can face challenges. But it is not true. I wanted to show that women are powerful too.
“The rights of women are making progress here now, but there is still a long way to go. They can do everything a man can do. Sometimes they’re even more powerful than men, and it’s important to show this.”
To an energetic and original score composed by Ly Vanthan, a teacher at Phare, the performance takes in some chilling scenes that stand hairs on end.
Death and incredibly creepy ghosts stalk Sokha, plaguing and tormenting her. In one unnerving moment, she cowers terrified and alone as death pounds out its toll behind her, while later death chillingly plays her like a puppet as she battles her nightmares.
The sharply emotional grip isn’t released even in the more positive moments. Audiences are always mesmerised by juggling shows, no matter how many times they see them. But when juggling is used as a metaphor for the painful struggle to relearn and rebuild a people’s shattered confidence, and of Khuon’s own experiences of teaching students at the young Phare Ponleu Selpak, the effect is simply devastating.
Khuon suggests that perhaps the show might not be advisable for very young children, especially because of the ghosts. But he adds that the show is not gruesome.
“We didn’t make the show very cruel,” he says. “It is more subtle than that. The story itself is very strong, so it wasn’t necessary to show it all.”
In contrast, the joyous and breath-taking acrobatic performances are a stunning testament to the power of Phare’s work. Confidence beams from the performers as they hang, balance and launch themselves through wildly implausible manoeuvres.
Punctuating the scenes, and giving the audience a moment to catch its breath, the artist Rouen Sokhom marks the phases of the story with a series of live paintings. From the rain of bombs and destruction that precede the Khmer Rouge to the reign of death that came with them, he throws them out on to the canvas with dramatic and violent gestures. The act of painting itself becomes an almost defiant dance. His final painting though is optimistic, and speaks about Cambodia’s regrowth and re-emergence as a developed nation, at peace with itself.
Ultimately, despite its dark undertones, Sokha is an optimistic show. The name itself translates as happiness, confidence and comfort, and these have always been the goals of Phare Ponleu Selpak for the young students that it trains. These are also Khuon’s hopes for Cambodia.
“Art is the one thing that can help people to have a new and happy life. Art is important to them, for making them strong.”
Rouen’s paintings are available for sale at the end of each show, and proceeds go towards funding a permanent home for Phare in Siem Reap.
When the show finishes on September 20, the contortionist Phunam Sokha will leave for the US for the premiere of the movie, The Children of Angkor, which features her life story.