Phare, the Cambodian Circus has been wowing audiences in the Kingdom and abroad for more than 10 years. Now the organisation’s social enterprise, led by CEO Huot Dara, is taking the show to new heights. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Charles Fox.

Tell me about Phare.
Phare Performing Social Enterprise is the revenue-generation arm for NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS). About 50 artists perform every night at the big top in Siem Reap and in international tours. The social enterprise was created three years ago, to provide a sustainable income to young artists, financially support the mother NGO school [PPS] in Battambang – a great organisation that is more than 20-years-old and has helped many young Cambodians from disadvantaged backgrounds transform their lives – and revive the appreciation of Cambodian performing arts.

What is the history of circus here?
Cambodia is a country with thousands of years of history. There are many forms of art that have been practiced for many years. Circus in particular appears in the history on and off since the 7th century. We have found evidence of [bas relief] carvings in 7th century temples, and then in the 13th century in the Elephant Terrace. There are also Buddhist pagodas that have paintings on their walls about circus. In fact, circus is registered in UNESCO by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, recognised as a Cambodian traditional art form. But it [was] lost, especially during the Khmer Rouge, where artists and intellectuals were targeted and killed. So many Cambodians have the perception it’s a foreign art form, because they don’t see it in mainstream entertainment, concerts or media. But we have evidence that it is a traditional Cambodian art form.

What is contemporary circus?
People are rediscovering circus now as a tool for education and for helping young people deal with social issues. Circus in the traditional sense is fun, clowns, technique and silliness, which has lost its popularity. It has been revived, revitalised, reformed and is becoming more and more popular. Cirque du Soleil has helped make it known. It’s a form that mixes amazing feats of circus skills by human beings only, with live music, dance, theatre, storytelling and costumes. Different troupes have their own flair. The performances of Phare [are] about energy, positivity and hope. The artists own the show because it’s their ideas. That is what makes Phare unique, and what makes Phare the top attraction after the temples in Siem Reap. It tells a uniquely Cambodian story.

How did you get involved?
Fourteen years ago I was a student of Phare. My parents would not pay for music classes, because that’s not what they value. I got to see the very first group of young performers [and] was inspired by them. For 13 years I spent my career climbing the corporate ladder. [Then PPS] contacted me and asked for help. They introduced me to the concept of social business. As an ambitious young Cambodian, I want a villa, a nice car, [for] my family to live comfortably, and I thought only then I can help. But social enterprise is interesting because I can make the change I want to see, at the same time earning an income that supports my family. So here I am.

What do you hope people take away from the shows?
I hope for young Cambodians that Phare artists are their inspiration to achieve things in their life. Because if young, underprivileged Cambodians see Phare artists jump 10 metres into the air, land on the shoulder of a human, with confidence, with trust, that says something. And if they know that these people were street kids before, or were from difficult social backgrounds, the message is, I can do that too. And I think Phare [helps] change the image of Cambodia [as] landmines, violence and Khmer Rouge [to a] country that is positive, vibrant and hopeful.

Tell me about the upcoming Tini Tinou Festival.
Tini Tinou is, through our research, the only international annual circus festival in Southeast Asia focusing on contemporary circus, and [more] on collaborations than competition. We hope to lead the crowd in making Cambodia known as the destination of arts and culture; Tini Tinou is one platform to make that happen. This year we have an amazing line-up of troupes from Canada, Australia, France, Afghanistan and Indonesia. People can expect a buffet of experiences, from different performers, in three different cities. Apart from official performances, people can also experience performances in public places, [or] pop-up shows. The festival starts Apr. 28 in Phnom Penh for four days, then moves to Battambang and Siem Reap.

What makes you passionate about Phare?
When I was [first] contacted by Phare, I was invited to visit and rediscover [PPS]. A group [came] to hug me and say thank you. I asked them, how do you remember me, it’s been 13 years. They said they wouldn’t forget someone who would buy them clothes when they didn’t have clothes to wear. At that time [when] I was a student, I didn’t have a lot of money. But I bought them second hand clothes in the market, because they needed specific clothes that allowed them to stretch. And they remembered. And I thought, wow, I don’t remember. Which means something small and, for me, insignificant means a lot to somebody. Today [those people] are educators, they write stories, they inspire. And that’s why I’m passionate.

For Tini Tinou International Circus Festival tickets, visit www.tinitinou.com.