Rebuilding a society from the arts up – Phare Circus

Cambodia is furiously building its skills base. Like all developing nations, it knows that this will be the key to a better future. Unlike most, it lost nearly all of its teachers, academics, artists, and scientists when they were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It has a long way to travel before it can restore decades of lost cultural and academic progress.

Battambang is now home to a healthy arts scene, with a growing population of painters, sculptors, musicians and performance artists. Part of this community is Phare Ponlue Selpak – a performing and fine arts school financed by a circus show, bar and gallery. Places are free for local children, and they offer a kindergarten and social work programme. The aim is to keep kids in healthy families, in school and safe.

We’ve been repeatedly told not to miss a performance and, although it’s not our favourite art form, we agree that the Phare Circus is an interesting project and worth experiencing. We might as well go on our last night.

Oh, such cynical tourists! We gasp and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ along with the rest of the crowd as tumblers, acrobats, dancers and jugglers amaze and delight.

The show, called ‘Influence’, explores the nature of power, control and corruption. In the opening scene, performers crouched under plain grass mats transform into underwater creatures (think horseshoe crabs) to play out the earliest power struggle – survival. Attack, predation and defence are all miraculously enacted with the simplest of sets. Later scenes include: a magical slow-motion race towards an undefined source of power; the victorious rising up of a king and his subsequent transformation into a (literal) puppet monarch; and the ruses used by rich/colonial players to distract and control local populations.

In the most chilling scene, the audience is invited to admire, laugh and even root for the western-shirted, evil sidekick diabolo-juggler while, simultaneously in the background, the linen-suited, trilby-wearing ‘boss’ walks repeatedly over the backs of crying Cambodians. The audience doesn’t know quite how to react as the juggler gives us the cues for cheers we are culturally trained to provide while, behind him, people silently wail and suffer. It was brilliantly executed.

Missing from the show was any exploration of female empowerment. This felt like a massive omission, give the sexual exploitation rife in Cambodia and its strong conservative streak when it comes to gender politics.

It being our last night at the wonderful Bric a Brac hotel, we make sure we’re home in time for gin, cheese and, as it turns out, an impromptu vocal performance by two of the staff, who duet for a few of the guests on the (by now) deserted road junction.

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