The energetic and cheering crowd was hushed by the graceful presence of the next act. A young man, dressed in a black leotard and a denim frilled skirt, stole the breath of the audience as he contorted his body – lying on his chin, his feet flat on the ground on either side of his head, folding his body in half, backwards. Each new contortion transitioned elegantly into the next, his face never hinting discomfort, though periodically offering a twisted smile that reached his eyes. His lips were carefully painted in an unobtrusive shade of red. His eyes were outlined with dark charcoal. In a swift glide, he moved his performance from the platform on the stage to two black, silk ropes that hung from the ceiling. His body now contorted poetically in the air, the silk rope his only aid. The audience was silenced by awe, enthralled by his grace.
Chhuon Chanpeuv, 16, is a circus student at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang. He comes from a humble family which he says by translator, is “not rich and not poor”. He joined the circus when he was 12 years old, inspired by his older brother who performs regularly in circus acts in Europe, Japan and Singapore.
Chanpeuv has been leaving a trail of stunned audiences since his first public performance when he was 14 in 2010. “People said in the beginning he was too young, but I said ‘no he’s capable, he can do it’,” says Xavier Gobin, Phare Ponleu Selpak’s circus administrator. And he has been doing ‘it’ ever since.
Chanpeuv has become one of the circus’ star acts and often receives high feedback after each performance, according to Gobin. Perhaps because of his breathtaking, “out of common” contortions and techniques in aerial silk, but also because of his strong vulnerability in the portrayal of who he is.
“I choose what I want to wear when I perform,” Chanpeuv says, referring to his feminine stage outfit.
“I do it because of what I believe, it’s who I am. And nowadays in modern Cambodia, the audience enjoys it, if it is done well,” he says, adding that, because of his grace and subtlety, his performances were not like stereotypical ladyboys in bars and clubs.
“I am just being myself, I’m not trying to put on a big performance like ladyboys do – I just like to express my own personality. I feel empowered and supported by the audience when I perform.”
Gobin says performing has transformed the youth. “Before he was performing, before he had opportunities, he didn’t have self-confidence. Now with the more opportunities he is given the more confident he grows in himself.”
As a performance draws to an end, Chanpeuv twists his body at the highest point in the silk rope. After holding the position, he lets himself unravel and fall to just above the ground.
This maneuver is his favourite because of the tense atmosphere it creates among the audience.
His goal is to perform abroad like his brother but, he says, despite training four hours a day, he is not good enough just yet.
“Aerial silk gives me a joyful feeling, it makes my heart light. That makes me push myself and go forward to learn more extreme techniques,” he says.
When Chanpeuv is not at school or training at the circus he says he spends his time at home helping his family around the house.
“This is what he says,” Gobin laughs. “But he has friends who he likes to dress up with. They put make up on and dance to K-pop. Actually he is very good at doing make-up; I often hire him to do the stage make-up of our performers.”