Phare Circus, which is coming to town this month for the OzAsia Festival, is described as “uniquely Cambodian”.
Its artists – who perform routines incorporating dance, contortion, acrobatics, fire juggling, rope walking and hand-to-hand balancing – all trained at a school founded in 1994 by a group of men returning home from refugee camps after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. They saw the potential for art to help young people suffering the effects of poverty and disadvantage.
The circus, based in Siem Reap, was founded three years ago to provide job opportunities for the school’s graduates. Since then, it has toured extensively and won international acclaim for shows that include a live band and draw on everything from traditional Cambodian folk tales, to the country’s more recent history and contemporary life.
The show premiering at OzAsia with 12 performers is set in a community living in the City of Angkor.
Phare Circus executive director Dara Hout says it offers an insight into Cambodia’s heritage and a taste of its performing arts and culture through depiction of both residents’ daily life and mythological characters.
“The performance conveys a strong message of the power of the villagers, the laypersons and all stakeholders in heritage conservation – especially of world heritage sites like Angkor Wat,” he says.
Hout says many of Phare Circus’s members come from disadvantaged backgrounds, including from families affected by poverty or domestic violence.
“Some were street kids; some were forced to work when they were young.
“We do not reveal all their stories as a respect to the performers. They have transformed their lives and chose performing arts as their career.”
Live music is an important component of the circus shows, and Hout describes 23-year-old instrumentalist Ly Vanthan – who has composed the original music for a number of shows and also performs nightly – as the “musical genius” of Phare.
Because his family couldn’t afford a drum kit, Vanthan started out improvising with metal pots and lids, and still likes to create makeshift instruments from a range of materials. He lists Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Santana and Steve Vai as his influences.
“His father was a music teacher in Phare Ponleu Selpak [the circus school],” Hout says. He came to work with his father every day.
“Vanthan likes to self-teach himself and research and try new things, new music, new instruments, new ways of making music from unconventional music equipment. In [Phare show] Khmer Metal, he used kitchen bowls with water to make beautiful sounds.”
Hout, who was himself a student of Phare, says it is one of only a few long-standing community arts and youth development grassroots organisations in Cambodia. He credits it with enriching his own appreciation of life and Cambodian culture, as well as that of many others.
Many of the young people he first met at Phare 15 years ago were in what he describes as “very difficult economic circumstances”.
“Some of them were scavengers, street kids, some even had to steal food to survive.
“Today, they are educators, writers, stage directors, teachers, arts managers. They own land; they have a house; they have a family.
“They are important and productive members of Cambodian society.”
The OzAsia Festival opens this weekend with the Moon Lantern Festival on Sunday. Phare Circus will be presented in the Ukiyo Tent in Elder Park from September 27 until October 2 as part of the 2016 OzAsia Festival, which begins this weekend.