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School of the Fantastic

School of the Fantastic

Sin Soneath, 14, has taken six years to perfect this.

T

ucked away in a quiet corner of Phnom Penh's University of Fine Arts is the one-ring

National Circus School.

The university is better known as a training school for Cambodia's classical dance

and music, but circus performing is also a traditional art with a history that stretches

back to Angkorian times and beyond, said Nuth Samony, the Director of the National

Circus School.

"There are carvings of circus performers on the walls of theAngkor temples -

especially on the Bayon. I felt very proud when I saw these carvings that depicted

scenes of animal training, tightrope walking, and acrobatics," said Samony of

his profession's long heritage.

The circus school is housed in a round, dimly-lit building. When a visitor's eyes

adjust to the interior's gloom they are greeted by the sight of whirling juggling

pins, rubber-like children contorting themselves into improbable positions, and acrobats

performing remarkable feats of balance and agility.

Samony has been in the circus business for over 20 years. "The Cambodian circus

was set up in 1980, and I studied circus management in the Soviet Union from 1981

to 1986," he said.

From 1980 to 1989 Russian and Vietnamese trainers taught at the school.

"Though circus has returned to Cambodia, its style is now European, but we are

doing research on how to adapt tour performances to Cambodia's circus traditions,"

he said of the circus's effort to add Khmer clothes and music to make their performance

more culturally distinctive.

Aspiring circus performers now must undergo nine years of training. For the first

three years they train in all disciplines before choosing a specialty. Students tend

to come from poor families from the provinces. They train from 7 to 11:30 most mornings

then attend regular classes in the afternoon.

This school is a juggling act for young trainees hoping for a performing career

at the end of it.

Samony admits there are few job opportunities for circus performers in Cambodia apart

from the circus school itself which hires a few graduates as trainers. In spite of

such limitations, he hopes to expand the scope of the school by adding an animal

training course to the National Circus School's curriculum in the near future.

Samony's animial training school plans are tinged with the sad memory of the last

performing animal that the school owned.

In the 1980s the school had a baby elephant named Kuch that was donated by the Chairman

of the National Election Committee, Chheng Phon. "He was very difficult for

us to train because he needed lots of milk, but at the same time we had to help our

students who faced financial hardship.

"The person who looked after it got married and paid less attention to the orphan

elephant, who needed a friend," said Samony. "He [the elephant] became

sick because of starvation, and died."

Nevertheless, Samony hopes donors will step forward to re-establish the animal training

program.

"At first we would like to train dogs and monkeys," he said, adding that

the school would need not only the animals, but also the money to feed them.

In the meantime the National Circus School will have to be content with training

young humans.

Trainer Chhut Nok was a circus student in the early 1980s. During his career he performed

in Laos, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union. Nok believes today's students have

a more difficult time than when his generation trained. Impoverished students do

not eat a proper diet and are unable to train as hard as hard as they would like.

"We feel isolated from the Ministry of Culture. Though we are part of the ministry,

they pay more attention to the classical dance and music departments. The ministry

keeps us in limbo and I am worried that the school might come to an end."

Preparing for that day, Nok has a second job as an electrical wholesaler.

Sin Soneath, 14, has been training for six years and can twist her body to a degree

that would hospitalize normal people.

While kneeling on the floor her trainer pokes a finger along Soneath's spine. When

the right spot is located the trainer replaces her finger with a knee and gives the

young contortionist's shoulders a vigorous tug. Soneath grunts in satisfaction and

resumes tying herself into knots.

Though training has been very painful for her "waist and bones", Soneath's

favorite discipline is "body balance". Her dream is to become a circus

trainer one day.

For these young men on the way to a circus career, life is not easy.

Kong Kosal, 19, is in the last stages of his specialty training. "I love juggling

very much. I used to perform at Wat Phnom, and during Chinese New Year celebrations.

I get paid $10 when I juggle."

Kosal is not certain if there is a viable future for jugglers in Cambodia. In the

meantime, he works as a motodup to earn a living as well as training.

Phouk Narin, who began juggling training in 1980, laments the decreasing popularity

of the circus in Cambodia.

"Before, people liked the circus very much. Now the circus is in decline because

of video movies. We can rarely perform because we have no money for costumes or to

hire musical performers."

Tightrope instructor In Yanee trained in the Soviet Union between 1981 and 1985.

Though challenging, she thought learning circus skills was easy compared with the

hardships she endured during the Khmer Rouge regime.

People liked circuses very much when Cambodia was under Vietnamese control, but "sexy

stage shows" are now all the rage in Cambodia, Yanee lamented.

"Now it is hard to compete with the short-skirt dancers," said Yanee.

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