Contortionists, acrobats and magicians aren’t necessarily what spring to mind when conjuring up an image of the temples of Angkor and the civilization that surrounded them.
But this weekend, students from the Circus School at the Royal University of Fine Arts will be demonstrating the link in a performance that draws on original Khmer circus styles, as depicted in Angkor’s bas reliefs.
The show was written and designed by Nuth Samony, the director of the Circus School. He helped reform the faculty in 1980, when the Khmer Rouge had left Cambodia bereft of artists and performers. Teachers were brought in from Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, and with them came new techniques and styles.
“We were so busy trying to restart the school, I didn’t even realize there was an original Khmer circus style until 1983,” Nuth Samony said at a rehearsal this week, as young performers twisted and sprung behind him.
Now, after 20 years of research—mostly conducted at the temples themselves, as virtually no documentation exists on the subject—Nuth Samony’s studies have paid off.
In collaboration with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and with funding from Liz Lutz, a US philanthropist, three performances this weekend will celebrate the Khmer circus tradition in the first public show since the Khmer Rouge regime.
The show may have its roots in history, but it brings circus to the stage as a vibrant, living art form. Unusually for such a performance, it also has a clear narrative, which echoes the theme of cultural rediscovery. And its musical accompaniment—a voluminous mix of classical Khmer instruments, a live Western-style band and a modern synthesizer—adds an eclectic edge.
Forty students between the ages of 9 and 25 make up the cast. They don’t often get to show off their skills in a staged performance, Nuth Samony said, so this show is a source of double excitement for them.
“They’re happy to be performing, and particularly happy because they’re proud to be doing something that’s absolutely Cambodian.”
Performances are at 6 pm this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the theater of the Royal University of Fine Arts’ North Campus. Tickets are available at the door and cost 3,000 riel.