Having spent their time off during the pandemic on rehearsals and practice, Phare Circus performers are re-energised and excited to return to the stage to do a six-week run of shows at The Factory Phnom Penh, the capital’s new creative hub.

Starting in the evening of January 14 and running through February 28, Phare Circus will share Cambodian stories through drama, dance, live music and modern circus arts.

Phare Circus will be performing two of their most iconic shows – Influence and Samaki – to remind audiences of how the arts have the power to unite and connect people in times of crisis.

Phare’s talented group of performers mesmerise audiences with their feats as they fly about the stage or bend and contort themselves with effortless flexibility.

One of the performers, Nget Ratha, has been studying at the Phare circus school for over 10 years now.

“I came to the circus later in my life but I love it so much. I came to visit my grandmother in Battambang [province] back when I was 17 and I just had a quick look at Phare. I saw people were doing acrobatics and practicing circus tricks all around the campus, and it was exciting,” he explains.

Ratha trained nearly every day for five years before he was deemed ready to perform with the circus. He says that all the hard work was worth it in order to experience the thrill of being on stage.

“I love acrobatics and I love performing in front of audiences most of all. Even if I am sad about something offstage before the show, when I am on stage I like making audiences cheer and laugh with us because that makes me happy too,” he says.

Ratha has been counting down the days until tonight’s opening at The Factory. He says he has a lot of pent up energy after taking such a long break from performing due to the pandemic.

“I am excited to get to perform at Factory Phnom Penh soon because people living in the city don’t get to see the circus very often. Please come to Factory Phnom Penh because we want to create wonderful moments to help you escape your troubles in this difficult time,” he says.

Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) – the name roughly translates to “the brightness of arts” – is a Cambodian non-profit whose mission is to provide a nurturing and creative environment where young people can access quality arts training, education and social support.

Performers can bend and contort themselves with effortless flexibility. Photo supplied

The students from PPS have always impressed audiences who attend their performances but much of what the organisation does for the community takes place offstage and away from the spotlight.

PPS was formed to help with the restoration of the culture and identity of Cambodia after it was damaged by the terrible loss of life and trauma that resulted from years of conflict and upheaval.

The PPS education programme includes a standard formal education from primary school through high school, along with programmes focusing on literacy, maths, life skills, and language classes.

Students from both the visual and performing arts schools also spend ample time honing their artistry and technique under expert instruction.

PPS founder Khoun Det, 48, grew up an orphan and has dedicated himself to providing help to those who need it most, such as the homeless or those living in poverty.

“I believe the arts are a key to empowering individuals to improve their own lives. Our school offers programmes for music, contemporary and traditional dancing, visual arts, theatre and circus arts. We also teach arts that rely on technology like animation and graphic design,” Det says.

Det’s goal is to give students the knowledge required to pursue a career in the arts with a realistic shot at success. Today PPS is recognised internationally for their innovative approach and the talented artists trained by their programmes, but they came from humble beginnings.

“I started with drawing in 1986 and then I went on to study martial arts beginning in 1992, and that was what led to the circus programme. Eight of my friends and I started teaching students how to draw in 1994.

“Back then we only owned some land we hoped to someday build the school on, not much more than that. For the circus we started with zero, nothing in our hands. We made a clearing in the dirt to practice tumbling and jumps. Then later on we started to receive a little support from other organisations and eventually we replaced that patch of dirt with a big building,” Det says.

Det started out as the sole instructor in circus arts. Years went by where he couldn’t find enough teachers to hire, which led to many of his early students becoming arts teachers at PPS themselves.

“I decided to send my students to France for training with partner organisations in both the arts and pedagogy in general before letting them teach because it is one thing to learn a skill yourself but another thing entirely to be able to successfully pass what you’ve learned on to others,” he says.

Phare Ponleu Selpak helps restore the culture and identity of Cambodia. Photo supplied

The circus programme requires nine years of practice before a student receives a certificate that qualifies them to start a business independently. The other courses require five years of training to achieve certification. PPS has certified around one thousand students in various arts since opening in 1994.

PPS receives 40 per cent of their funding through donations, but the other 60 per cent is self-generated through their own business activity – mainly performances in Siem Reap in past years.

All of the profits they make go towards funding the PPS arts centre and education programmes in Battambang province.

“A multitude of artistic and cultural activities are carried on everyday free of charge to more than 500 students in Battambang,” Det says.

Covid-19 and the lack of tourism in Siem Reap along with restrictions on performances and group gatherings have made survival for PPS a challenge this year.

“In order to survive in the long run, we never wanted to rely solely on donations because we know that things change and so we did our best to be as self-sufficient as possible. But lately we are really struggling since we aren’t able to perform as scheduled,” Det says.

The Phare Circus performances at The Factory were originally supposed to take place in November but they had to be rescheduled due to the pandemic.

Det is thankful that the show will go on despite the delays. He says his students have spent the extra time practicing hard every day and he hopes PPS can become more active in Phnom Penh going forward.

“If this goes well, we hope to be able to expand our social business in Phnom Penh because we don’t have a regular team on staff here yet, only when we come down for events or workshops,” he says.

The Phare Circus is performing at The Factory Phnom Penh from January 14 to February 28.

Influence will be performed on Thursdays at 8pm, while Samaki will be performed on Sundays at 5pm.

Booking a seat can be done by email: [email protected] or by calling 077 554 413.

Tickets are $10 each (free for children under 6 years of age).

Audiences are requested to please wear masks when attending.