Like the nation as a whole, the Cambodian circus and performing arts scene has endured great challenges over the decades. The arts were thriving in Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, with a unique architectural style taking form and an unmistakably Khmer spin on rock & roll taking over the radio waves.
This all came to a grinding halt in the late 1970s when Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge regime embarked on a rogue attempt to socially engineer Cambodia back to the middle ages. From 1975 to 1979, freedom became a thing of the past as the Cambodian population was forced into the countryside to work on communal farms.
Any external creative influence was ostracized, and anyone who tried to deviate from Pol Pot’s warpath was heartlessly murdered. This era will forever be remembered as one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.
With the lack of physical and mental freedom came a complete creative standstill. Artists dropped their paintbrushes, and performers left behind their feelings of showmanship and the ability to entertain. The country was focused on survival alone.
The Khmer people, though, are nothing if not resilient. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979, the nation began to pick up the pieces of its culture and customs. Slowly, the creative heart of Cambodia began to beat again…
The Demise & Rise of the Cambodian Circus & Performing Arts Scene
With their freedoms reinstated, the Cambodian people were able to come together in communities once again. They finally had their venues for self-expression back – and they had a lot to share with the world.
This creative spark, coupled with the influx of tourism into Cambodia in recent years, has ignited some truly remarkable art projects and initiatives.
A number of traditional art collectives began going from strength to strength, including a Cambodian Circus that is starting to give Cirque du Soleil a run for its money…
Today, we are going to give a shout out to 4 of these creative showcases that are such a key part of the rejuvenation of the nation.
If you’re lucky enough to be walking on Cambodian soil, be sure to check these artistic ensembles out.
The show must go on…
Phare The Cambodian Circus
Phare the Cambodian Circus…
This performing extravaganza is certainly Cambodia’s answer to Cirque du Soleil. Forget clowns squirting you with water, people balancing on oversized volleyballs and imprisoned elephants (in fact there are no animals used at all!). Phare the Cambodian Circus is really bringing the spark back to Cambodia!
This entity within the umbrella of the nonprofit organization Phare Ponleu Selpak has become the leading Cambodian circus, theatre, and performing arts collective in the country. With a relentless schedule of nightly shows (running continuously since 2013!), there’s no reason not to take your seat in their big top and watch the magic unfold.
What to expect…
Phare the Cambodian Circus is so much more than a bog stand conventional circus. A large emphasis is placed on the performing arts themselves, of course – and you are sure to be dazzled. Less expected, though, may be social impact that is seamlessly threaded into each show.
Many of the performers will have polished their skills at Phare’s Battambang campus, a social enterprise that offers vocational training and professional pathways in the arts for children and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are delivered alongside education initiatives and other social programs.
Show your sustainability…
All proceeds towards this Cambodian circus are immediately reinvested into the Phare Ponleu Selpak organization, in order to create even more opportunities in Cambodia’s communities. We love that!
The show goes on every night in Siem Reap. Get your tickets HERE.
Wat Bo Shadow Puppetry Troupe
Image courtesy of amrita performing arts
Born in the ancient era of the Khmer Empire, the traditional art of ‘sbaek’ (shadow puppetry) is almost extinct in Cambodia. One amazing group that has kept playing in the shadows is the Wat Bo Shadow Puppetry Troupe.
The level of detail that goes into perfecting a triple backflip, is clearly reflected in these incredibly intricate patterned puppets. The puppets tend to be made out of ox, cow or buffalo hide and are hoisted into the air on bamboo rods.
You can expect an especially trippy and intimate performance. The romanticism of a subtle glow from behind the screen coming from a coconut fire really brings the puppets to life.
Again, if you’re exploring Siem Reap, this one is definitely worth checking out.
The troupe’s performances are all given using an ancient to Cambodian poem, Reamker, to guide the storyline.
This certainly isn’t the last of the shadow puppets!
Sophiline Arts Ensemble
Here is a true exhibition of how from darkness, can come light. Sophiline Cheam Shapiro spent her childhood years under the influence of the restrictive Khmer Rouge regime.
With a natural spring in her step, her passion has always been to dance. Surprise, surprise… When peace came, that’s exactly what she did. And what a beautiful product of creativity her performances have become.
Under the careful guidance of a fellow surviving dancer, Sophiline honed her dancing skills at the Royal University of Arts in Phnom Penh.
With that kind of a groove it was only a matter of time until she was on the move…
After a stint throwing some mesmerizing dance moves across the United States, she eventually returned to Cambodia to pursue her dream of setting up her own dance collective. Thus, the Sophiline Arts Ensemble was born!
Since inaugurating the Ensemble, Sophiline has gone on to scoop up a number of prestigious dance awards.
And she’s still grooving today…
The Sophiline Arts Ensemble host regular shows in Phnom Penh. Don’t miss out!
Turning over to a new chapter in the novel of Cambodian performing arts, Selapak Cambodia is the home of martial arts in Phnom Penh.
Massively overshadowed by its acrobatic cousin, Thai boxing, the traditional Cambodian martial art of Yuthakun Khom is being kept alive right here by Selapak.
As if out of the jungle book of fighters, each martial artist will pick an animal and mimic their characteristics to defeat their opponent. We’re of course going all in on the monkey, come and try us!
If you’re traveling in Phnom Penh, the door is always open for those who want to learn the art. The classes are orchestrated by Chan Rothana who was born into a family of martial artists.
If your spirit animal is a caterpillar and you’re not backing yourself in the fight, you can still go and watch a private performance in Phnom Pehn at Selapak Cambodia.
Visit Selapak Cambodia’s website HERE.
The Show Will Be Going On!
As we mentioned, all of these organisations are impeccably ethical and are continuously contributing to the development of opportunity for the Cambodian people.
If you are lucky enough to be traveling through Cambodia, please support them.
You may well run away with the Cambodian circus!
More Articles on the Cambodian Circus
If our list has whet your creative palate and you’re craving some more… Check out these other pieces on the Cambodian circus and performing arts scene! We only recommend bloggers we read often and love:
- A Night At The Circus In Siem Reap by Borders Of Adventure
- Re-enchanting The World With Performing Arts: Stories From Cambodia by The Conversation
- Revitalizing Cambodian Traditional Performing Arts For Social Change by OUP Blog
- Lessons From Cambodia’s Rebirth Through The Arts by Huffington Post
Demise & Rise of the Cambodian Circus – How Did We Do?
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