Battambang is home to the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School and NGO. The mission behind the organization is to provide opportunities for children from less fortunate backgrounds through the medium of performance art.
It started back in 1986 in refugee camps lining the Thai border, with simple drawing workshops. The experiment continued after the refugees returned to their homelands in Battambang and Phare Ponleu Selpak has blossomed to where it now has a worldwide reputation.
Every Monday and Thursday a show is performed for both locals and tourists to rousing applause and appreciation.
It is a Cirque du Solei type of circus. In fact several of the students have graduated and been accepted to Montreal where the holy learning grail of circus performers is located. Others have gone on to perform all over Europe and Asia in various disciplines.
It was an incredible show highlighting many of the skills taught here. Hand balancing, contortion, tumbling, dancing, acrobatics, and hula hooping. The kids were smooth in their transitions and there was a basic story-line to the show however, to be very honest, it was lost on me.
That said though, and not taking away from the degree of difficulty, this was a very strange and bizarre show, at times…and highly inspirational.
The entertainment starts out with a gang of young men sneaking around the stage; eventually stealing another young mans bicycle. The owner of the bike, noticing it gone, begins to dance with a girl; she begins an energetic hula-hoop routine. She has hoops on her hands, neck, waist, and feet; all spinning at the same time but never colliding. He is laughing at her but seemingly trying to flirt at the same time.
She was having none of it however.
The hula-hoopists mother comes out and with a slap to the boys face he and the hula girl exit stage-left.
Enter two more girls who begin to dance around the mother the way children do; flailing arms and legs with a degree of energetic chaos. Mother begins washing clothes. The girls are enticing her to dance but she is refusing to join in. With each refusal she scowls and sends them scurrying away. In a desperate surrender, the kind of surrender all mothers are familiar with, she puts down the washing and they all dance…eventually morphing into a contortionist act.
Meanwhile some other guys steal all the laundry.
The slapstick stylings of thievery now becoming part of the overall theme.
When mother, now pained by regret, realizes she is unhappy with the situation. It was the girls who made her contort. She wants to be part of it no longer. They contort together one more time, as if spurred on by a type of contortionist addiction, and then abruptly turn and run off stage.
Enter four guys wearing what can only be described as diapers. The ensemble is completed using a pacifier accessory in each of their mouths. They tumble, dance, and perform acrobatic stunts and high flying maneuvers. Huge smiles cover their faces which on occasion break to laughter; it seems they are equally as confused by their outfits as the audience.
More dancers enter. They also do tumbling. Then there are some cheerleader types who build a human pyramid. Others fly through hoops held by one of the girls. More dancing, hula hooping, contortion.
The stolen bicycle or laundry are never retrieved.
At final curtain they all come on stage and bow; beaming with pride. The girls in their outfits and the guys in diapers. They smile and laugh and I join them; applauding and cheering loudly.
Not a show you will see very often so when in Battambang, if on a Monday or Thursday, check it out. You wont easily forget this whirlwind performance with a humanitarian slant benefiting countless children living life in the harsh circumstance that is Cambodia.
An expose on one of the performers who’s life has been forever changed by the circus.
For photos of Cambodia click here.