Tini Tinou International Circus Festival marks its 10th anniversary with a feast of acrobatic feats from six troupes hailing from five countries. AsiaLIFE takes a look behind the scenes.

Jaw-dropping juggling, awesome acrobatics, flame-throwing, tomfoolery, bodies hurtling through the air – this is all in an evening’s work for the troupes performing at Tini Tinou International Circus Festival.

Last year’s event – the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia – attracted more than 4,500 people across a total of eight sold-out nights in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang, with audiences clamouring to catch a glimpse of the breath-taking Cirque du Soliel-esque shows. And with this year’s festival having kicked off in Phnom Penh on Apr. 28, it looks set to be even better than its popular predecessor.

“Cambodia is leading the region in contemporary circus, with three years of nightly performances by Phare in Siem Reap, and 20 years of regular performances by Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) in Battambang,” says Dara Huot, CEO of Phare, The Cambodian Circus, which organises the festival.

“Tini Tinou is a natural extension of this and we’re pleased to bring contemporary performers from all over the world to see and participate in our vibrant arts scene.”

Troupes from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Nepal, and France have flown into the country to work and perform alongside Cambodian artists from Phare. Australia’s national youth circus, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus, will premier its show, Stunt Lounge; Collectif Open Ticket from France will perform Sans Queue Ni Tete (Nonsense), and Canada’s Inner Ring Circus will wow the crowd with a juggling duo act. Phare will also debut, Influence. In a series of intricate Each night features a different full-length performance.

The streets of the three cities will also be taken over by a series of pop-up events, with artists from Nepal, Indonesia, and Afghanistan putting on free, improvised shows throughout the festival.

And the culmination of the collaboration between the artists, who take part in a series of daily workshops ranging from juggling and trampoline to street performance, will also be showcased on the streets.

Circus Roots
“The art is in our blood,” says PPS’s artistic director, Khuon Det, referring to the tradition of Cambodia circus.

Circus has a long history in Cambodia, with evidence dating back to the 6th century in intricate carvings depicting circus performances and characters found etched into walls of the almost 300 small temples dotted around Kampong Thom province.

Signs of circus dwindle after this, but re-emerge in the 11th century on the bas reliefs of the glorious temples of Angkor, including Bayon, Taprum, Preas Sdach Konlong Lean and Baphoun. Civil war in the 14th century brought the Angkor era to an end, and took with it the art form. But it resurged in the early 19th century, with drawings of circus found in Kompong Trolach Leu pagoda.

A war with Thailand halted shows, with circus revived by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1960. Just 15 years later, it died another death, being outlawed, along with all other art forms, by the Khmer Rouge.

Following the 1979 toppling of the regime, the National Circus School in Phnom Penh re-opened, sparking the start of its revival. The return of the circus trickled back into the countryside too, with a smattering of performances at village festivals to mark national holidays and important events.

In 1994, PPS was launched as a multi-arts centre in Battambang, offering free classes in visual and performing arts and circus to underprivileged children living in the area.

The proud product of the circus school is Phare, The Cambodian Circus, with troupes putting on spectacular shows in Siem Reap and Battambang daily, helping to shape contemporary circus.

Tini Tinou Time
In 2004, Tini Tinou – “here and there” in Khmer – made its debut. Artists from across the world were invited to visit Cambodia to teach at workshops and collaborate on projects, culminating in a performance that was showcased to the community.

Six years later, the annual festival was scrapped due to lack of funds. But, like the revival of the traditional art in the country, it made a return in 2014, and was an instant hit with all shows selling out, and people demanding more. Last year’s festival was an instant hit, and this year’s is already hotting up, with audiences already impressed by what they see.

“Most artists don’t speak the same language and they come from very different backgrounds,” says Huot. “These workshops are an extraordinary way to transcend cultural barriers, learn new skills and form strong bonds.

“Giving this opportunity to Cambodian performers and international artists, who travel a long way to take part in this festival, opens the doors to more working relationships in the future, and strengthens Cambodia’s reputation as a leader in the creative and performing arts field in the Southeast Asia region”.

Tini Tinou is in Phnom Penh on May 1, Battambang from May 3 to 6, and Siem Reap from May 8 to 10. For information, visit tinitinou.com.