Throughout my time as a Winterline Field Advisor and living in Cambodia for a couple years, taking students to the Phare Circus was one of my favorite parts of any program I’ve ever led. The shows are exciting, funny, insightful, artistic, interactive, even stress-inducing with some of their tricks! Even if you’ve seen the same show multiple times (I’ve been there too many times to count!), it doesn’t get old.
But there’s a little more to these performances and this skill set than what meets the eye. First of all, I’m sure when many of us read the word ‘circus’, we think of animals dressed up doing tricks through flaming rings, sequins and feather headdresses worn by women riding elephants, acrobats being whipped through the air at the top of a huge circular tent. Maybe we think of movies we’ve seen, like Dumbo, or The Greatest Showman, or even remember the Ringling Brothers. The smell and taste of peanuts and popcorn. The unease of clowns riding unicycles. A lead showman dressed to the nines.
At Phare Circus, there are no animals, only humans using their bodies to create incredible performances. There are costumes and props, but nothing like what you might imagine for a circus or something like Cirque du Soleil (but there is a tent and popcorn!).
This isn’t your typical circus, with an even less than typical start. What you don’t see is that The Phare Circus supports at-risk Cambodian populations by training them for a specific skill, thus creating an avenue for a more successful future. Once someone has made it to the circus as a performer, musician, light production member, or artist, that’s the outcome. The last step. They’ve truly made it out of poverty and into a comfortable livelihood.
In the province of Battambang, Cambodia, you’ll find Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school for training in professional arts including illustration, painting, theater, music, animation, graphic design, dance, and circus. Founded in 1994, at risk youth are trained at this school entirely free of charge, as well as given free general education (K-12) and social support before moving on to the circus or creative studio. Currently, the school supports around 1,200 children, as well as their families.
Each performance at the circus is a story of Cambodian culture, having to do with myths, legends, actual historical events, or even modern-day society. You’ll see gripping nightmarish reenactments from a child’s mind during their traumatic experience living through the Khmer Rouge Era. You’ll see hilarious comparisons between Khmer culture and foreigners as tourism continues to grow and the cultural differences intermix.
And those are just the story lines.
Shows are filled with incredible stunts, tricks, art, dance, and interactive moments with the crowd. Before and after the show, the audience makes their way through a gift shop, filled with goods handcrafted by those that went the route of creative studio instead of circus performing. Each item sold in the gift shop or created during one of the performances raises profits to support the NGO school as well as the performers and artists.
The circus and skill training for our students is located in Siem Reap and is a favorite skill day. It’s a skill where students can let go and simply try everything that’s thrown at them. Learning to juggle, learning to flip properly, how to make standing human pyramids and balance other bodies with yours. It’s not so much a specific skill you learn so much as it is learning more about yourself; what you’re good at, what you’re willing to try, and how to trust your body to perform a certain way. It’s also a great opportunity for our students to get their bodies moving as our Asia trimester spends a considerable amount of time in big cities after an outdoors-filled first trimester!
To learn more about the Phare circus and their efforts, please visit https://pharecircus.org/ to check out their different shows and how to reserve your own tickets if you’re planning to visit Cambodia. For the Phare Ponleu Selpak school and social enterprise efforts, visit https://www.pharepse.org/ and consider supporting this fabulous NGO.
In Khmer language, the name Phare Ponleu Selpak means, “The Brightness of the Arts”.