Mind bending tricks and intriguing illusions have been entertaining audiences for centuries, and Cambodia is no exception. Marissa Carruthers and photographer Charles Fox take a closer look at Siem Reap’s new circus.

There’s a gasp from the audience as a woman in a white leotard gracefully glides through the air on a trapeze, before twisting into a position that looks far from natural. Minutes later, the audience is treated to a flash of colour, then another and another, as kamikaze performers cartwheel and flip across the stage.

Welcome to the world of the circus in Siem Reap, where a troupe of dedicated performers who have spent more than a decade in training entertain audiences with a combination of acrobatic feats, juggling and passionately told stories.

Hundreds of Cambodians are devoting much of their lives to the art form thanks to a circus school run by Battambang-based organisation Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS). The multi-arts centre for disadvantaged children was launched in 1994 by eight Cambodian artists returning from refugee camps in Thailand. They were inspired to nurture and rekindle culture following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime after learning about the use of art as a way of dealing with trauma.

Each of the performers in the organisation’s latest venture, Phare, the Cambodian Circus — launched in Siem Reap earlier this year — carries the physical and mental determination to push boundaries. Khuonthan Cham Yoeun is one of them.

Now a juggler and acrobatic specialist, he stumbled across the circus in Battambang after moving to northwestern Cambodia with his family at the age of five. “Life was hard for us. It was the UN election period and in Battambang there was still bombing,” says the 30-year-old performer.

Unable to go to school because he had to help his family sell bread and vegetables, eight-year-old Khuonthan was intrigued when PPS set up camp in town. After being invited inside, he became hooked and made it his life mission to enrol.

“I wasn’t able to go often because I didn’t have the time and needed to help my family. They came to ask my parents if I could join full-time, but they said no, because I was the one who could help them make money,” he says.

Determined to make his dream come true, the performer defied his parents and sneaked into the school when he could, learning juggling, tight-rope walking, aerial acrobatics and other skills. He went on to become a star pupil and was invited to join the troupe on a Cambodian tour that put on entertaining educational shows, tackling issues such as HIV
and malaria.

“They said we’d get to travel in a car and I’d never been in a car before so I was determined to go,” he recalls. “I lied to my parents and said I was going to Poipet to try and find some money, but instead joined the troupe. My parents were very upset and angry when I came back and told them where I’d been.”

As punishment, he was forced to carry 100 buckets of water a day to feed the family’s vegetables for a month. But in a spare hour of each day he would go to the circus school — a move that very quickly paid off.

“The teachers all loved me for my hard working attitude and circus skills, and they sent me to France for training,” he says. “When my parents heard about that they were very happy but they didn’t believe me.”

Despite worring about leaving his family alone, Khuonthan spent a year at the Parisian circus school Aroni Sauboir in 2000, and went on to star in numerous productions across Europe. Since returning to Cambodia, he is sharing skills as a teacher at PPS.

“Acrobatics is very difficult and every day we have to practise from 8am to noon and 2pm to 5pm, with some training at night too… it’s worth it, especially when you see the performances,” he says.

The expert’s latest career move has seen him step into the shoes of stage director. He has co-directed the Siem Reap circus’ first show, Tchamlaek, which he also features in. Meaning ‘weird’ in Khmer, it follows the strange adventures of a family as they call on the help of a medium to cure their father who is traumatised after the war.

The satisfaction of performing is clear among the whole troupe. Aerial acrobatics specialist Kem Tina, who joined when he was 14 after a course was offered at a centre for vulnerable children, says that he “can’t imagine doing anything else now. “

“For me, every time I go to the circus I feel very happy,” adds Khuonthan. “When I get that body pain after training, I know it’s doing me good. I’m so addicted to it and feel healthy and don’t think I should ever stop.”

Phare, the Cambodian Circus will be housed under a 400-seat big top in Siem Reap from mid-June. For more information, visit siemreapevents.wix.com/phare