Trees towered behind the stage, alternately flashing pink, orange and red in the still night air as the lights washed over them. The only sound, a dull murmur from the waiting crowd.
Suddenly, as the live band started to play, Siem Reap’s Phare Cambodian Circus performers appeared on Thursday night for their last show at their long-time home in Charles de Gaulle Street.
Gone for the last 10 evenings was the intimate setting of the big top. Instead, the artists performed on an open-air stage, under the stars – just like they had when the circus first came to town three years ago.
It was a fitting farewell to a site that had been home to so much growth and development – a return to its roots, a reminder of where it all began.
Last night, the circus tumbled, juggled and joked under the big top once again, this time at the circus’s new home on the Ring Road, south of the city centre.
Phare’s chief executive officer, Dara Huot, said the move was “nerve-wracking” but went off with no major glitches.
Phare’s technical director led the relocation team with help from two French big top experts – Nicholas Charpail and Jerome Gendron.
Charpail was the one who had the portable structure custom made for use as an opera tent in France. He worked with it for seven years before it eventually made its way to Cambodia and Phare, where he and Gendron helped erect it in 2013.
“In France, when we had it, this big top was never in the same place for more than two weeks,” Charpail said.“But in France we would take two days to put up and one day down.”
This was largely because of more sophisticated technical equipment and bigger trucks.The technical team put in long hours of physical work through the 10-day move period, dismantling and re-assembling the big top, and then were back on site for the outdoor performances every night. It’s been a gruelling schedule but everyone has rallied to get the job done.
The new site is the same size – 5,600 square metres – as the previous site but with many improvements, including an artist development centre, rehearsal space, a bigger restaurant with capacity to seat 200 diners and a bigger boutique. And it has been built with the capacity for expansion to about 550 seats.
Huot admitted being “pleasantly surprised” at how much the circus has grown in the three years since it began.“We used to perform to crowds of [as few as] seven people, outdoors,” he said.
These days the big top is often filled to its 330-person capacity, especially during high season. They have doubled from a pool of 20 artists and 25 staff to about 45 artists and 50 staff.
But running an organisation like this is not always smooth sailing – the social enterprise was rocked recently by claims of sexual abuse.
A former long-time employee is reportedly in jail in France awaiting trial on child sex charges allegedly committed while working for Phare in Cambodia.
Huot said Phare’s team was working with Friends International and cooperating with the NGO investigating the claim.“We take the safety and the protection of our students seriously,” he said.
“I cannot state to the specifics, if it will affect the business, except the fact that we are taking it very seriously and we will take all the necessary action to protect and prevent any potential abuse.”
Huot adds that they have already worked with Friends International to revise and strengthen child-protection policies and the staff code of conduct and visitor code of conduct, and all employees must sign a staff conduct and child-protection policy.
Despite the controversy, Huot is excited about the future of Phare at its new venue – which was purchased by the circus.
“It’s for the long-term sustainability of the social enterprise, which will translate into the long-term sustainability of the mother NGO,” he said.
Phare already sends more than $100,000 annually to its mother NGO, Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts school in Battambang for disadvantaged young people and he expects that figure to increase.
The new venue is the result of a two-and-a-half-year campaign to raise $550,000 to buy land and create a permanent home for Phare in Siem Reap.
Money for the land was raised through a crowdfunding campaign, reinvesting profits, increased capital from shareholders and a loan from Grameen Credit Agricole Foundation.
“Purchasing our own land has always been part of our plan,” Huot said.“Renting in Siem Reap can be difficult, and with land prices increasing exponentially, the board and management felt it was best to purchase a permanent space to provide a more stable and sustainable environment for our performers.”
He said the circus had changed lives and created career opportunities for young people who often would not have had other job prospects, while also making a significant contribution to Cambodia’s performing arts.
“As a Cambodian I am enormously proud of what this organisation has done for more than 20 years. And the fact that they have found a way to be self-sustainable by themselves, to be on their own two feet, is admirable,” he said.
“And I am happy and privileged to live here with the organisation and to work with young people every day because I know they will be our leaders.”