Phare Cambodian Circus: Walking the High-Wire of Social Change

by Mélissa Lesnie  |  Published October 13, 2022

Founded by refugees, Phare Cambodian Circus does more than just dazzle tourists night after night: its performances fund schooling for hundreds of disadvantaged children, lift families out of poverty, and place Cambodian arts firmly on the map after years of cultural annihilation at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Phare Cambodian Circus (Photo: Scott Sharick / Courtesy of Phare Cambodian Circus)

I’m not sure if I’m sweating from the heat or from the suspense. Even as the frenzied live music pounds, it seems drowned out by the strained whine of mosquitos and the nervous swish of paper fans, by the concentrated tension of 450 audience-members crammed on the rickety seating of this Cambodian bigtop. We all feel it: we are about to witness something incredible… if everything goes to plan.

Expertly balanced on her hands, legs poised over her head, the contortionist grips a bow and arrow with her toes. Gazing from between her feet, she fixes her target: a pink balloon on the other end of the stage. A moment of silence engulfs us as she draws the bowstring back with one foot; we wait for its release.

There’s nothing like a circus to remind you of your New Year’s resolutions (someone shooting an arrow into a balloon with their feet is quite the incentive to at least being able to touch your toes!). So when I heard about the town’s local troupe on a December trip to Siem Reap, I decided it was the perfect way to ring in the year to come. It had felt the more enlightened option, certainly, than the standard tourists’ bar crawl on Pub Street, even if a decent part of Phare Circus’ show is all about Cambodians getting drunk in a raucous rock bar.

Khmer Metal is what they call it. A bartender wakes up on the floor and groggily sweeps up debris from the night before. Meanwhile, a musclebound customer arrives with his girlfriend and a fight erupts over his stolen iPad, taking the form of an enthralling display of acrobatics with the accused thief. Except then, intrigued by the overt advances of another, particularly flexible, male customer, muscles disappears into the restrooms with his new admirer, abandoning his girlfriend at the bar. She huffs, she slams down three shots proffered by the barman, then climbs onto a table and backbends into a position that just shouldn’t be humanly possible — let alone in high heels! Cirque du Soleil, this is not.

The northwestern city of Siem Reap may be best known as the gateway town to the vast, ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, but since 2013 it has also welcomed more than 100,000 tourists keen to see this living, breathing, and sommersaulting attraction. With nightly performances under their own bigtop, Phare Cambodian Circus has fast become Siem Reap’s other must-see attraction, a visceral contrast to any day exploring the centuries-old ruins of Bayon or Ta Prohm.

From the production ‘Khmer Metal’ (Photo by Ranuth Yu / Courtesy of Phare Cambodian Circus)

Phare is committed to presenting original shows based on Cambodian customs and history, touching on issues of class, alcoholism, sexuality and urban living. It may not sound like standard circus fare, but the troupe’s talented artists are simply depicting the challenges they themselves have faced growing up in the shadow of the fallen Khmer Rouge regime.

Although they are all too young to have experienced firsthand the violence and horror of the genocide between 1975 and 1979, Phare performers are products of its devastating socio-economic effects in a country still condemned to widespread poverty and domestic violence. The Phare artists, then, are telling their own stories, and also the stories of their parents and grandparents, in service to an art form all but wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s intellectual and artistic purges.

The roots of the Phare can be traced back to Site Two, the largest refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s following the fall of the Khmer Rouge. A group of nine young refugees were taken under the wing of French art therapist Véronique Decrop, who helped them to overcome their traumatic experiences through drawing and watercolor classes. By 1994, they had founded a non-profit art school for survivors and returning refugees in Battambang, Cambodia’s third largest city, about 200km (124 miles) from Siem Reap. They named the school Phare Ponleu Selpak Association, meaning ‘the brightness of the arts’ in Khmer language; the word ‘Phare’ also bears the French acronym: Patrimoine Humain et Artistique des Réfugiés et de leurs Enfants (Human and Artistic Heritage of Refugees and their Children).

One of the refugee co-founders was Dara Huot, now CEO of the NGO Phare Performing Social Enterprise. “I am a person who believes in memory, in the tradition of storytelling that sparks conversation, debate, learning and change,” he says. “Young people in Cambodia ask themselves why things are the way they are today. They are expressing themselves, their relevance and their position in society through the art they are producing.” But how did the forms of expression explored by students at the school expand from watercolors to contortion, aerial acrobatics, juggling, fire dancing, mime and other circus arts?

Phare Cambodian Circus (Photo: Timothy Gib / Courtesy of Phare Cambodian Circus)

“Expression through visual art is not an answer to everybody’s needs. Children are active, jumping up and down all the time,” says Huot. “One of the founders, Khoun Det, also happened to receive martial arts training while he was in the camp, so he had a dream to set up a school of performing arts.”

There was a great weight of cultural heritage behind him, Cambodian circus arts dating back as far as the 7th century, with stone carvings in the temples of the ancient city of Sambor Prei Kuk portraying contortionists, magicians, jugglers and acrobats. King Sihanouk encouraged a revival of the art form in the 1960s, but by 1975 all performing arts and forms of cultural expression had been outlawed, with artists and musicians among the first victims of the brutal regime.

A National Circus School of Cambodia was reestablished in Phnom Penh in 1980, however, and it was there that Phare’s founders trained in order offer their own classes in circus arts. Years of dedication paid off, because by 2013, Phare were able to open their own bigtop in Siem Reap. In a city that welcomes as many as 2.6 million temple tourists annually, their new home enabled them not only to offer stable employment to their graduating artists, but also to continue funding the school’s initiatives with box office returns and donations.

French-born Xavier Gobin, Director of Operations for Phare Performing Social Enterprise, had a career as a professional dancer before he first became involved with the troupe in 2003. He attests to the way in which the school has transformed the lives of the students. “The fulfilment they got out of circus arts was tangible, not only financially, but psychologically, and in terms of development of the community.”

Battambang students performing on unicycle at a local festival (Photo courtesy of Phare Ponleu Selpak)

On the night when I attended Phare’s show, as with every time the circus performs, the audience was invited to step into the ring at the end of the evening in order to meet the artists, take photos, and donate. It’s a strange and humbling experience to stand on terra firma chatting with them; didn’t we just see that clown hoist another guy over his shoulders while balancing on a wooden plank stacked precariously on a barrel propped on a tyre? And just when we thought that must be that, didn’t he add another two canisters and a box to the ramshackle pile of stuff to balance on? (By then he had put on a crash helmet, the only time anyone in the show wore one, so we knew it was serious.)

There is, after all, a very human dimension to all these superhuman exploits in the ring. Remember the balloon archer? First time round, her arrow skimmed the balloon, which didn’t burst. Without missing a beat, she reassumed the position, and fired again; the balloon seemed to glare at her, triumphantly unscathed. When she drew the bow with her toes for a third time, the awed silence gradually turned into slow, rhythmic clapping, escalating to a roar of encouragement. And even though, eventually, the crowd did not have the satisfaction of seeing the balloon pop on New Year’s Eve, we were completely conquered by the contortionist’s persistence and determination. I later learned that her name is Srey Leak, that she had recently given birth to her first child, and that she had found her way to the circus school after an early childhood selling homemade cakes with her mother.

Indeed, thanks to funds generated by the performances, the school continues to offer free education to up to 1,200 underprivileged Cambodian children annually, with a few hundred going on to specialize in arts programs. “The sentiment is that this is one big family. Lives have revolved around this organization for almost three decades,”  Dara Huot affirms.

And it’s not only 8-10 years of intense training and the adrenaline of being on stage that unites the performers; it’s their collective background of hardship and poverty, with some of the graduates leaving behind begging, domestic violence or even human trafficking, literally running away to the circus.

Today, about 40 percent of the nightly circus revenue goes directly to the youth performers, and salaried artists are all endowed with extensive accident and health insurance for themselves and up to two family members: a considerable undertaking in a country that only introduced a national social protection scheme in the last half decade.

Students performing acrobatics at a local festival in Battambang. (Photo courtesy of Phare Ponleu Selpak)

“At least seven of our artists are living in Europe pursuing international careers, most living in Cambodia have broken the cycle of poverty with a medium level of income,” says Huot proudly. “There are many role models, especially female artists.” This said, not all artists at Phare envisage a lifelong career in the circus, nor do they necessarily see Phare as a stepping stone to greater international stages. While 25-year-old Choub Kanha has toured internationally with Phare, for example, her dream is of one day owning a beauty salon in Paris, when circus career has run its course.

Likewise, it’s not only acrobatic prowess and seemingly impossible feats that captivate tourists; Phare’s take on traditional Khmer themes and retellings of recent events in Cambodia’s history can be surprising, confronting, and refreshing at turns. Whether this be in their aforementioned Khmer Metal show, their performance White Gold about rice and the daily struggles of peasants, or their darkest spectacle Sokha, about a young survivor of the Khmer Rouge who discovers that, through her involvement with a circus, she has the power to heal her own suffering and support her community.

From the production ‘White Gold’ (Photo courtesy of Phare Cambodian Circus)

“One of the goals of the social enterprise is also about visibility and contemporary creation for Cambodian artists,” explains Xavier Gobin. “The audience has the sense that they are learning something about Cambodian youth today, they have a proximity to the artists who are extremely communicative on stage, and they scratch the superficial surface of what they might see as a tourist to go deeper into the country’s psyche in a subtle way.”

What’s next for Phare?  Dara Huot’s vision for the company revolves around creating even more opportunities and platforms for the artists to express themselves. “There will be more and more circus artists graduating. We try to support them to have an international career as well as a local career. There is also an opportunity in Phnom Penh, where the growing Cambodian middle-class now has the purchasing power and the appetite for cultural experiences. Our next big step is a fine dining circus theatre in the capital.”

The local team also has the chance to embark on tours abroad or to collaborate in situ with visiting international artists on choreography workshops and other educational and cultural exchanges, as with the visiting students of Toulouse-based circus school Ésacto’Lido for the Tini Tinou festival in Battambang (sponsored by the French region of Occitainie).

The future of the arts in Cambodia is brighter than ever.

From the production ‘Eclipse’ (Photo: Phare Cambodian Circus)