A Circus Takes Flight

A pledge by a Battambang City organization to generate steady revenues and full-time jobs for artists has led Siem Reap City to become the only place in the country featuring a daily circus show of professional standards. 

Aimed at the tourist market, the show is a mix of theater, dance and acrobatics built around a storyline and presented with the dramatic staging that characterizes what is known around the world as contemporary circus, or nouveau cirque.

Launched on February 9 by Phare Ponleu Selpak, this daily-performance program took more than 18 months to develop.

“I would say that the 2009 economic crisis had the effect of an electroshock on us,” said Jean-Christophe Sidoit, who was serving as Phare’s technical advisor at the time. Described as the worst since the Great Depression of the late 1920s, the economic crisis caused both international private and government aid agencies to cut funding for arts programs.

Although Phare had managed to generate about half of the budget required to run its free visual arts, performing arts and circus school programs, the organization was still heavily relying on donors at the time. “In 2010, we found ourselves in an absolutely catastrophic financial situation,” Mr. Sidoit said. “We told ourselves: Never again, we absolutely need to find ways to become truly independent.”

So, Phare decided to follow a social enterprise model with two goals in mind, he said. From its very start in 1994, the organization’s goal has been to train artists so they could live off their art, he said. As a consequence, its social enterprises had to both help fund the organization’s free education programs and create jobs for the artists trained at the school, Mr. Sidoit said.

Setting up the circus program in Siem Reap City took more than a year and a half of planning and market studies, he said.
For it to really work, Phare needed a person with an extensive knowledge and understanding of the Asian tourism market in Siem Reap city. Therefore, six months ago, Phare asked Huot Dara to serve as Phare’s project co-director in Siem Reap City. Mr. Dara had worked in sales and marketing for Asian airlines for eight years before becoming a senior sales and marketing manager for the NagaWorld hotel and casino in Phnom Penh.

“My first impression was that Phare’s circus performances are great,” Mr. Dara said. “They have a great product and I know there is a market for it. It’s just a matter of bringing that product to the market.”

“I believed that making this project successful means to capture different segments of the market,” he said. “There are two markets here: the independent travelers who make decisions by themselves with guidebooks or through websites, and…the packaged tours that are arranged by travel agencies, tour operators. So we need to capture both markets.”

Asian visitors represent 60 to 70 percent of the tourism market in Siem Reap City, Mr. Dara said. But since tour packages and travelers’ patterns vary from country to country, marketing strategies to bring Asian tourists to the circus shows must be developed on a country-by-country basis, he noted.

To create the circus company, contracts were offered to acrobats, jugglers and contortionists who had completed about 10 years of training at Phare’s circus school in Battambang City and had toured in several countries with the school, said Xavier Gobin, who was Phare’s circus administrator for four years and now serves as operations manager in Siem Reap City.

The company includes about 30 circus artists and musicians, he said. In addition to salaries, the artists get complimentary lodging and Mr. Gobin—a contemporary dancer who performed for years with dance companies in Europe such as the reputed Maurice Bejart company—made sure that the artists would be comfortable, he said.

Having been a performer himself, he said, “I know that a daily show is difficult on the morale.” So he insisted for each artist to have his own room and bathroom in a quiet villa where the company can relax. “This was a major issue for me during our planning stage: To have a truly appropriate stage, sturdy and large, and get an adequate residence for the artists,” he said.
So far, the artists are thrilled to be part of the company.

“I was literally jumping for joy when I heard about the project to do daily shows as professional artists, and especially to get a salary because it is the first time…that we are getting a salary for performing as professional circus artists,” said Heng Samnang, one of the performers. “Of course, it’s exhausting and your body is aching with daily performances. But we are so happy, we just need to rest afterwards.”

“During my first years at the circus school, I saw a narrow market for Cambodian professional circus artists to make a living. Now I see this market getting bigger,” Mr. Samnang said. “We hope that Phare can set up similar projects in other tourist provinces because we have more circus artists who can do professional performances.”

At the present time, only Phare circus students and some of their professional artists have regular opportunities to perform. Circus students of the Ministry of Culture’s Secondary School of Fine Arts hardly ever have the chance to perform for the public.

The circus performances in Siem Reap City are taking place on a parcel of land behind the Angkor National Museum and the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor.

“Our strategy is to sell the tickets at $15 per person to the public and give a commission to travel agencies built into the tickets,” Mr. Dara said. Tickets are $8 for children and free for the very young ones. To launch the circus this month, tickets for Cambodians are $4 for adults and $2 for children. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.

Now held on an outdoor stage in front of 300 seats dressed in red and gold silk covers, performances will soon take place under a big top purchased second-hand in France and due to arrive in Cambodia in April, said Mr. Sidoit, who now serves as Phare’s Siem Reap City project co-director. Designed for an opera theater, the big top will have excellent acoustics and seat 400 people, he said.

The circus company did not want a larger seat capacity, he said. “We work on creating emotion,” he said. A larger venue such as Phnom Penh’s Beeline Arena and its 1,500 seats where Phare artists have performed monthly since last September make it a challenge for them to convey emotion to everyone in the audience, he explained.

Still Phare’s circus artists will stage their latest show “Metal Khmer” at Beeline Arena on February 23 and, even though they will no longer perform once a month, the arena plans to invite them back later this year, said Charles Julliard, the arena’s marketing and events manager.

In Siem Reap City, Phare is presently featuring two shows: “Putho” on 10 consecutive nights followed by “Eclipse” for four nights. Plans are for the company to develop new shows—which can take months of preparation—and to organize international tours for its artists, Mr. Gobin said.

It may take some time before the show can be sold out every night, Mr. Huot said.

“It is the goal of the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia to extend the stay of every tourist in Cambodia” whose average stay is about 2.5 nights at the present time, he said.

“With more attractions, more things to do or see in Cambodia, we might extend the average stay in Cambodia to three or four nights, and that would be a lot better,” Mr. Huot added.

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