Circus Ignites Cambodia’s Cultural Revival

Three French circus performers tumbled onto the Cambodia arts scene Sunday night and into the pages of Cambodian cultural history at the Sovanna Phum theater in Phnom Penh.

Cirque Trottola opened its three-week stay with a theatrical performance of juggling, live music and acrobatics. The group flew to Phnom Penh to participate in the Bamboo Ferraille Project, an international cultural exchange that will culminate in the formation of an international touring group of Cambodian circus performers.

Without the elephants or ring masters often associated with three-ringed circuses in the West, the Cambodian troupe will more closely resemble an ensemble of dancers, shadow puppeteers, musicians and actors.

Bamboo Ferraille is a revolutionary idea in a country where the government provides little support for original creative expression, said Claire Minart, Bamboo Ferraille founder and president of Sovanna Phum’s sister organization in France.

Until now, artists seeking funding have had to become civil servants, commissioned by the state to execute traditional art forms, Minart said. She is hopeful the artistic exchange will inspire Cam­bodian artists to create with greater freedom and originality.

“Not only in the circus genre, but in Cambodia in general, it is a culture of technique and repetition. People do not express feeling here,” Minart said.

Cirque Trottola’s expertise is storytelling through physical acrobatics, music and juggling. The French performers will share these techniques with the Cam­bodians, who often learn specific combinations of movements and deliver them in rote succession rather than spinning tales through movement and music.

One juggling acrobat, Laurent, describes his circus style as “Disorder, smelling, color—I try to share it all with the audience.” This approach is more raw than most Cambodian artists are used to, but Minart feels they are ready for the exchange.

“We will not really change the Cambodian artists, but we will give them another frame to work in, another door that they can walk through,” Minart said.

Minart hopes the exchange will encourage Cambodian artists to deviate from the strict lines of the Soviet circus, which deeply defined the Khmer art during the 1980s.

The culmination of their work will be a “100 percent Cambodian performance of dancing, shadow puppetry, music and masks,” Minart said. Its debut is tentatively scheduled for Jan 5.

Although it is premature to predict the project’s success, Minart believes that its planned tour of Phnom Penh, the provinces and, ultimately, France in 2004 could bear the country’s third circus.             Minart said two serious groups currently dominate the scene: The National School of Fine Arts and a French-funded NGO in Battambang.

Key to Bamboo Ferraille’s healthy development is funding, which though partially provided by France’s Ministry of Health and Sport and two French circus schools, is still lacking. The public is welcome to support the project’s growth by viewing performances, to be shown every three weeks, until its 20 members depart for their French tour.

Sovanna Phum and the Bamboo Ferraille Project were created to support the free and independent evolution of Khmer culture.              Delphine Kassem, a Sovanna Phum founder, was teaching the circus technique diabolo—a type of juggling—at the Fine Arts University in the early 1990s when she noticed that artists had nothing to show for their endless practice. Although they spent hours fine-tuning technique and artistic delivery, performances were unheard of. Practice without performance was an offense against the artists, Kassem thought.

“You cannot be an artist if you never have contact with an audience. You do it for nothing,” she said.

With the support of friends seeking a venue for cultural entertainment in 1994, Kassem raised enough money with Thierry Poncet, Sethy Dy and, later, shadow puppet master Kosal Mann to construct a small, uncovered stage on Street 360.

The makeshift wooden performing area served well when skies were clear, but when rain hit the ground, soggy shows were a wash out. Still, weekly performances of dance, shadow puppet theater, drumming and dramatic theater established a following—one that has maintained a loyal following for the past eight years.

A larger, covered stage and a traveling truck were constructed with the funds from a $9,000 grant provided by the British Embassy in 2001. The sides of the two-and-a-half-ton truck fold down to form a stage upon which artists perform for thousands of rural villagers.             People without television, radio or the ability to read flock to open pastures to sink into timeless stories recounted by music, song and dance. “They are hungry for art,” Kassem said about the provincial audiences.

More than 30 people usually pay the $5 to pass through the iron gates and enjoy the evening performances, but 60 more wait until 7:30 pm for the doors to open for free.

Sovanna Phum artists are reimbursed for their time only when ticket sales raise enough money to cover the cost of labor. Kassem and Kosal do little promotion, relying primarily on word-of-mouth advertisement. So far, news of events has spread effectively through the grapevine, but the organization could benefit greatly from increased demand.

Although financial support is critical to Bamboo Ferraille’s growth, money is not a measure of success. The Cirque Trottola performers scavenged the neighborhood for materials to construct its humble set: a makeshift shack housing three unlikely vagabond friends.

Initially the Cambodian artists were surprised to see their accomplished visitors fishing through trash for scraps of wood and metal. That is just the reaction the artists hoped to achieve.

“We wanted to show them that you don’t need money to share art.” The French troupe performed without words, speaking to the audience through silent expressions of bewilderment, discomfort and surprise, proving that over time, laughter translates to any language.

The Khmer circus enjoyed great popularity during the Angkor period, as shown at the Bayon Temple, where a tightrope walker and jugglers are carved into a two meter-long stone tablet.

According to Kassem, its notoriety and recorded history faded with time until 1979, when the Moscow circus marched into the country, shedding new light on the art and shaping performers into rigid Soviet molds.

Before that, though, the Khmer Rouge regime all but destroyed Cambodia’s artistic culture. Kassem said that the few artists granted amnesty to perform during the regime were treated harshly, called upon to amuse officers and sometimes prisoners.

Today performers do not suffer as in years past, but Kassem said most still are commissioned to work for the government in a dry cultural environment not conducive for experimentation.

“Artists must be involved in a society to make things move. A society in good health must go out [to cultural events],” she said.


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