The circus is coming to town, and, starting on Monday, a corps of more than 200 performers will be center stage.
The artists, who hail from across Cambodia, as well as France, Laos and Burma, will be performing feats of juggling, acrobatics, puppetry and magic—all part of the second annual Tini Tinou (Here There) circus festival organized by the French Cultural Center.
The event, which will be held at the National Cultural Center in Phnom Penh, was created to help sustain circus arts in Cambodia and to provide a forum for international exchange.
Daily parades along Sisowath Quay, featuring a riot of musicians and acrobats, will lure viewers to the free shows, held each evening from Nov 7 to Nov 13.
At the center of the festival is a cultural exchange.
Cambodian performers from the Royal University of Fine Arts national circus troupe—whose usual fare is a highly traditional medley of contortionism, trapeze work, acrobatics, juggling and clowning—learned some new moves from members of the French collective Petit Travers, who practice a contemporary circus form that draws on dance and theater.
“They are very open personally, but they are closed in by the traditional circus performance. So we try to open the way to let them express themselves,” said Celine Lapeyre, who spent the last week teaching RUFA circus students about contemporary dance.
“They really understand—they are very hungry. They eat everything I give them. They have never done this before—I see it because everything I propose is new for them and they take everything. They are discovering,” she said.
Lapeyre said she found the students’ enthusiasm surprising, given the difficult conditions in which they work.
“It is the first time for us that we teach somebody who has no idea of contemporary circus shows. And we were surprised: No materials, no floor, no teachers, no music,” she said.
The Petit Travers members described their own performance spectacle as an interplay between characters; a non-narrative unfolding of relationships rather than a series of stunts.
“It is a circus which thinks about theater and dancing. It is not a big show where I do a trick and wait for applause; it is soft, sensitive,” said Nicolas Mathis, who with Francois Lebas and Lapeyre make up the company.
Event organizers hope that Cambodian troupes from Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap province, and performers from Laos and Burma can all share their ideas and techniques.
The Laotian circus, a medley of puppetry, music and dance, and the Burmese performance, which features juggling and acrobatics, will be Cambodian premieres, said Anna Leal, CCF communication officer.
“For the Burmese performers, it is the first time to leave their county. [The circus they will perform] is typical of Burma because they are juggling with a ball called a chinlon—this is typical to Laos or Burma, but you cannot find this in Cambodia,” Leal said.
On the other end of the spectrum is Sok Sam Ol, a magician who goes by the stage-name Solo. Promising to turn a flame into a dove and a candle into a scarf, Solo also has a dog trained to jump through hoops, a comedy shtick and a routine that has been seen at concerts, ceremonies and birthday parties across Asia, he said.
Like many Cambodian circus performers, he was trained by Vietnamese and Russian artists; now, he has passed on his tricks to a group of teenagers who will join him onstage.
Hing Chan Seika, 20, said that he has been clowning with RUFA’s circus troupe for nine years, but he still has plenty to learn. He said the visiting French artists taught him to form balloons into animals, to walk in a funny way and to take a stage punch.
But they also sparked his creativity, he said.
“Clowning is a profession that makes people happy, and I can play with people in all age groups—they don’t take it too seriously,” he said. “We make people happy and so we are also happy.”