Back in Town

It has been nearly a decade since more than 200 Cambodian circus artists first gathered in Phnom Penh to stage an unprecedented show.

Organized by the French Cultural Center—since renamed the Institut Francais—the center’s staff traveled the country to meet circus artists from the provinces and bring them to perform in November 2004 during a weeklong festival they named Tini Tinou, or “here and there.”

Scene from ‘Eclipse’ (Peter Phoeng)
Scene from ‘Eclipse’ (Peter Phoeng)

Artists who had never met before performed magic tricks, juggling and acrobatics alongside French circus artists and students from the National Circus School in Phnom Penh and from the organization Phare Ponleu Selpak’s circus school in Battambang City. Between the shows, artists and students held workshops to discuss styles and experiment with techniques.

Though the annual festival drew thousands of spectators, budget cuts by the French Embassy saw the French Cultural Center turning ownership over to Phare Ponleu Selpak. Four years later, the festival stopped altogether—too costly for the circus school’s shoestring budget.

But on Wednesday and Thursday, wistful spectators and new audiences alike will have a chance to re-experience the Tini Tinou of a decade ago.

Held in the Big Top across the street from the National Assembly, the performance will start with a series of traditional acts by National Circus School students. This will be followed by “Eclipse,” an hour-long contemporary circus, or nouveau cirque, performance by Phare artists. The shows are supported by ANZ Royal Bank and the European Union.

The Big Top, which was donated to Cambodia by the Vietnamese government, is ideal for those shows. With its 1,100 seats set up in tiered rows around the performance ring, the venue enables the artists to build a link with the audience and create an atmosphere of intimacy as spectators are never far from them, explained Huot Dara, chief executive of Phare, the Cambodian Circus—which is the professional arm of Phare based in Siem Reap City.

“Eclipse” will be presented by Phare’s fourth generation of students, who graduated last year and now perform in Siem Reap, said Khuon Det, Phare’s circus school director and artistic director.

The show, whose theme is discrimination, was created in 2009 with students from Phare’s third generation. In past iterations, the central character has been played by a little person, Tes Ley, the well-known comedian whose stage name is Neay Kren, and a deaf-mute, Huon Sopheak; in next week’s show the character will be played by Mony Ratanak Sambath, a hunchbacked artist.

Every change of artists requires rewriting the show, Khuon Det explained.

“Each version must be adapted to the capacity and technical abilities of the artists,” he said. “Those of the third generation were especially strong in acrobatics and balancing while the fourth generation is quite strong in teeter board. So we have redesigned the show accordingly.”

This will be a rare occasion when the Big Top is used for performances for the general public—typically, it is used for classes of the National Circus School.

Based on the far-away campus of the Secondary School of Fine Arts in Sen Sok district’s Phnom Penh Thmei commune—where its equipment is aging, if not defective—the school has its students make the one-hour trip between the Big Top and the campus every day.

“For two years, our students have been doing their circus training at the Big Top,” said Phouk Narin, director of the National Circus School. “This means that they spend half a day on campus studying curriculum subjects in regular classes and the other half training at the circus facilities across from the National Assembly.”

Unfortunately, the lack of career opportunities for circus artists is so limited in the country that few students enroll at the school nowadays, Ms. Narin said.

“It’s so sad to see a huge drop in enrollment this year,” she said. “For the school year 2012-2013, we had more than 10 students. But this year, we only had two students enrolled, a girl and a boy. They both are from the provinces and had to move in with relatives in Phnom Penh to join the circus school…. They are very talented.” The two students were selected through an admission test, she added.

The poor career prospects are one of the reasons why Phare has set up its professional company in Siem Reap City so that its students can earn a living after graduation.

The tradition of circus arts goes back a millennium in Cambodia. Circus acts even appear in wall carvings at the 7th century Sambor Prei Kuk site in Kompong Thom province and the 13th century Bayon temple at Angkor, explained at the first Tini Tinou Nuth Samony, who was then vice dean of Choreographic Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Circus arts declined along with the Khmer empire. With the exception of a revival in the 18th century, which is illustrated in wall paintings at Kompong Tralach pagoda in Kompong Chhnang province, they started to thrive again only in the 1980s with the support of Russian teachers, said Mr. Samony.

When the Bassac Theater burned down in 1994 in Phnom Penh, the National Theater’s circus artists at the Ministry of Culture lost all their equipment along with their venue.

Circus arts have yet to recover from this loss, and for those staging the latest version of Tini Tinou, much hope has been placed on the upcoming festival as a way to relaunch annual shows and revive interest in the art form.

The shows on Wednesday and Thursday will start at 6 p.m.

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