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Tales from the circus

Culturally ambitious and artistically adventurous, circus artists from Cambodia, Finland and Singapore on how they got into the scene.

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Published: 16 May 2019


Time taken : >15mins

Circus artists from Cambodia, Finland and Singapore talk about uplifting society and experimenting with modes of expression in three vastly different cultures.

The origin story – Phare, The Cambodian Circus

Circus performers are depicted in ancient temple sculptures and carvings in Cambodia, but circus arts had become dormant enough by 1960 to require reviving by King Norodom Sihanouk. In 1975, circus acts were outlawed by the Khmer Rouge, along with other forms of art and culture. After this totalitarian regime ended in 1979, the state created the National Circus School of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

The lingering impact of Cambodia's traumatic years of war and strife influences Phare, which is an offshoot of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a non-profit association founded in 1994 to help children from low-income backgrounds.

Besides a free education, PPS students can also access social support programmes and receive training in a variety of visual and performing arts disciplines, including circus arts. Those trained in the latter can opt to work in Phare after graduation.

Our artists are agents of change.

– Phare, The Cambodian Circus.

In the circus we trust

One of the school’s key goals is to help students develop self-confidence and learn important values, and circus training can be a big part of that. Phare CEO Huot Dara, who was a PPS student himself 19 years ago, relates: "The daily struggle to survive, having to work for income at a young age, or even living on the streets are experiences that do not allow the children to learn how to trust themselves and the people around them."

“When they learn how to jump seven metres into the air and land safely on the shoulders of their classmates, they learn to have confidence in their abilities, and to trust the partners they work with.”

Phare performers also get the chance to travel, and that “helps us to learn what’s possible out there in this world and ask ourselves what we can do in Cambodia for Cambodia”, he adds. “Our artists are important agents of change for our country.”

We talk to Phare performer Sreyleak Nov

How did you become interested in the circus?

Sreyleak Nov: I grew up in Battambang, in northwestern Cambodia, with my parents and eight siblings. As a child, I helped my mother make and sell cakes for the local market to help earn money for the family.

I began my studies at PPS when I was nine. I loved being able to learn and also being with the other kids. At 13, I decided to join the circus training programme, and I studied with the third generation of circus students.

A female circus performer soars through the air as her fellow performers stand ready to catch her.

Sreyleak Nov soars through the air.

What was your training like?

All the circus skills took time and patience to learn, but contortion was the most difficult for me. I had to stretch often, and pushed my body beyond its natural limits. I practised everyday with determination and tears, working to improve my craft. I was inspired by seeing what others in the circus school were capable of, and I told myself that I wanted to be as flexible as them even though it would be hard and dangerous.

I continued to work hard through other obstacles. When I was 16, I struggled with health issues, the loss of my father, and financial difficulties. I nearly gave up on my circus career. My coach encouraged me to keep going, and with help from one of PPS’s founders, Det Khuon, I pushed myself to continue with the circus.

Describe a typical work day.

As a circus artist, my creativity and physical condition are the most important elements. I must make sure that I am in the best physical and mental condition possible for each and every performance. I consume a balanced diet of vegetable, fish, meat and rice.

In school, I trained in the morning and afternoon, for three hours each time. When I need to create new circus techniques or new performance scenes with my troupe, we will also practise at night. I like to take inspiration from real-life stories and experiences to create a new character, story and act.

Did you face any objections when deciding to become a circus artist?

Coming from a poor family without a father, my mother was not happy with the idea of me becoming a circus artist, because she needed me to help support the family. Most Cambodian families don’t want their children, especially their daughters, to join the circus, because they think that circus acts are dangerous and only for men. The traditional belief is that women should stay home to help with the housework, and I think this idea is not right. Woman can do anything that men can do.

What would you like the future of the circus to be?

Due to the recent history of the wars in Cambodia and the devastation caused by the systematic killing of artists, the theme of national, cultural and personal identity for us as Cambodians is very important for me as a young Cambodian born in the aftermath of such atrocities.

Who am I? Who are we? What defines us as Cambodians? What does it mean to be Cambodians? What is our relation to one another, to our society, to the people around us and to international communities? These are the underlying themes of what we as young artists like to explore, research, feel, and experiment with.

Tales From The Circus Wise Fools 02

The origin story – Wise Fools

Circuses were popular entertainment in Finland from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, before a high “amusement tax” put an end to profitability for most acts. Today, Sirkus Finlandia is the country’s largest touring traditional circus, but it also has a vibrant contemporary circus scene, which blends traditional circus arts with aesthetic design and narrative development.

One reason for this development is because youth circus was a popular hobby for children in the 1990s, including Valpuri Kaarninen and Maria Peltola of Wise Fools. The third member of the group is Jaimee Allen, who is from South Africa. Their specialty? Triple trapeze and skipping ropes.

These days, circus can be almost anything

– Wise Fools, Finland

We talk to the Wise Fools

How did you become interested in the circus?

Valpuri and Maria: We were part of a local youth circus in Tampere, Finland, where we tried several circus disciplines during our childhood before finally specialising in triple trapeze. We were attracted by aerial acrobatics because it is a different kind of way to use the body.

Jaimee: I started in Zip Zap circus in Cape Town, South Africa. Zip Zap is a social circus project where children of different racial backgrounds work together. I specialised in cloud swing, a highly acrobatic and technical aerial discipline which interested me.

What was your training like?

Wise Fools: We all studied our respective specialities in Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque, in Brussels, Belgium. We also studied other disciplines, such as acrobatics, handstands, theatre, dance, circus history and production.

The biggest challenge in the beginning was that all the teaching was in French, which we didn’t speak then. So the first year was quite complicated because it was hard to understand what the teachers were saying.

You also have to work hard both physically and mentally. There was a lot of physical training each day, and in theatre classes, you have to be constantly willing to beyond your comfort zone.

Describe a typical work day.

We have two kinds of days—days when we perform and days when we train. On a performance day, mornings are a great time to do some production work on a computer. About two hours before showtime, we go to the performance space. First we do make-up and hair, then we warm up a bit. After the show, we stretch.

Training days are less busy. On those days, we do also a lot of production work, and then we often train together in triple trapeze, as well as individually in our solo disciplines (cloud swing, straps, rope and acrobatics).

Three aerial acrobats hang from ropes in the air.

When fools are wise, they're perched up high.

Did you face any objections when deciding to become a circus artist?

No, we didn’t receive any direct objections. All our parents were very supportive. It’s an interesting career you can do best when you are still young, so it was now or never for us.

What would you like the future of the circus to be?

For us, the evolution of contemporary circus has been the most interesting development. That has opened up a lot of creative possibilities. These days, circus can be almost anything and almost anything can be circus. We hope that in the future there will be more high-quality circus productions and that contemporary circus can become a well-known art form all over the world.

Tales From The Circus Bornfire 03

“Doing things you never thought possible.”

Bornfire Circus, Singapore

The origin story – Bornfire Circus

Before film and TV came along, the circus was one form of mass entertainment in Singapore, enthralling audiences with acrobatic feats and animal menageries. Practitioners here are still passionate about circus arts. Bornfire Circus was created in 2011, to nurture circus practitioners, and allow them to practise together and exchange ideas.

Doing things you never thought possible.

– Bornfire Circus, Singapore

We talk to Lina Heng from Bornfire Circus

How did you become interested in the circus?

Lina: The first memory I have of circus was of watching contortionists perform when I was in primary school. Many years later, I met a group of circus practitioners while researching a dissertation project, and my interest was piqued.

They patiently taught me new tricks, gave relatable technical advice and were so encouraging. What’s kept me going is this community of practitioners, who are so open to sharing and having fun learning together and challenging each other with new skills. Over time, there is also the satisfaction of discovering how capable your body is at picking up new motor skills, and doing things you never really thought were possible. I like that.

Two circus performers on stage.

Lina Heng (right).

What was your training like?

I picked up some basic skills, such as juggling or joggling (running while juggling), as a hobby. More technical training came from more advanced practitioners, and this formed a base from which I went on to explore improvisation.

I had the opportunity to receive more formal training when I was invited to join a two-week circus training programme in Australia. That was the most intense training I have yet experienced, and also the most cherished experience. We specialised in two key skills and had a combination of dance, performance, conditioning and tumbling classes. Although the initial days were tough, I really loved every minute of just being able to focus on training and having the time to work on a skill continuously and under professional guidance.

Describe a typical work day.

During the lead-up to performances, a typical week involves night rehearsals after work, and full-day rehearsals during the weekends. During a non-performance period, I spend two to three hours a day on specific skills such as handstands, and maybe a few minutes of ball juggling before bed.

Inspiration for performances comes from watching YouTube videos of performers, or just watching people in the MRT or walking on the streets. The creation process that has worked well for me thus far is, as long as there is a rough framework, the rest is just exploration.

Did you face any objections when deciding to become a circus artist?

Lina: At the beginning, taking part in some of the performances and outreach sessions was viewed as a good distraction and a hobby. As the performances became more frequent and elaborate, I did face some resistance to me spending a lot of time on training while juggling full-time work. This was not entirely unfounded, because there had to be compromises when it comes to wanting to do so many things in a limited amount of time. I’m still trying to find the right balance.

What would you like the future of the circus to be?

What's exciting about circus is that it is evolving. While it’s great that we have very pure traditional circus arts (glamorous acts like what you see on The Greatest Showman), there are also very experimental and alternative acts.

In 2016, when visiting the European Juggling Convention, I discovered there were such creative and intriguing pieces out there! There were hobbyists who created technically advanced pieces just for themselves but yet were so fascinating to watch. There were elegant synchronised pieces combining dance, juggling and theatre as an exploration of a concept.

There were performances I liked and some I didn’t quite understand, but I appreciated each as a continual work-in-progress by its creator. Not every show can be liked by everyone, but every show can strive to search for new purpose and direction and to push boundaries.


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