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International circus festival hits Battambang, Phnom Penh

By: Dan Poynton and The Mekong Times Posted: March-26-2008 in
Dan Poynton and The Mekong Times

No one can remember the word for "circus" in Khmer these days so, as is often customary in Cambodia, the French word ("le cirque") will do. However, in the late 12th century bas-reliefs of the Bayon at Angkor, acrobats perform contortions and feats of balance, and tamers coax wild animals to dance and do tricks. Cambodian circus performers say this ancient form of circus, from the time of Jayavarman VII and before, was uniquely Khmer, and is quite different to the Western idea of the circus Cambodians mainly see today.

"Circus art was already in the [Angkorean] temples, although much of it was destroyed by civil war," said Khoun Det, head of the circus school at Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), an arts NGO in Battambang. "In the Khmer circus, costumes and stage direction were similar to apsara dancing. The performance was strongly influenced by traditional dance, and there were traditional characters like Hanuman the Monkey [from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana]." He said nowadays the Cambodian circus uses Western techniques but uniquely Khmer aspects remain. "In ancient times, there were acrobats and magicians, but not clowns. Instead, there were comedians and performers such as ayai musicians, which we still see today,' said Khoun Det.

PPS is celebrating the universal spirit of the circus from Apr 3-6 in an international circus festival in Battambang called Tini Tinou. This translates from Khmer as "Here, there", although Khoun Det points out that the words also mean "to exchange", as over 200 local and international artists from eight countries will be exchanging circus ideas and techniques through the performances and workshops at the festival.

It is the fifth Tini Tinou festival funded by the French Cultural Center (CCF) - the first being in Phnom Penh in 2004. Today the CCF remains Tini Tinou's main funder but the Tini Tinou festival is run by PPS. This year's Tini Tinou has the most international presence of all the festivals so far, with about half of the performers being from overseas.

Further ideas will be exchanged at Tini Tinou's international conference Apr 5-6 - "Performing arts and social action" - which will use PPS as its role model. The NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak - meaning "The brightness of art" in a mixture of Khmer and French - runs a range of artistic activities designed to keep young people creatively active and off the streets. It was founded in 1986 in a Thai border camp under the inspiration of French aid worker Veronique de Grope, said Srey Bandol, a cofounder of PPS and now head of art and animation.

"With the '91 Peace Accords everyone had to return to Cambodia. We had no money or land so we decided to start a school in 1994 in Battambang, which was the founders' home town," he said.

PPS focuses, not on "art for art's sake", but on art as social action. "We didn't just want to do acting; we wanted to do social activities, because there were many problems around," said Srey Bandol. "There were many poor children on the streets, and there was a lot of culture in Battambang already," he said, adding that the abundance of culture made Battambang an ideal place to host the organization.

Nowadays, PPS has more than 1,000 students, and its courses include circus, visual arts, music, drama and dance. "Everything is free," said Srey Bandol. "There is a public school, and we fully support 30 children [mainly orphans and trafficking victims] - they live there."

PPS says it aims to support community development and provide social and educational help to children through the revival of the war- and genocide damaged Khmer culture. PPS educates and hopes to rehabilitate street kids, orphans and children living in high-risk situations, providing them with a sustainable future based on the arts. PPS runs street-theatre programs in places like garment factories, town streets and village temples, educating about HIV/ AIDS, prostitution and abuse.

"Our principal funders are the French Embassy and UNICEF … but we support ourselves too," Srey Bandol said.

Khoun Det, who was also one of PPS's founders along the Thai border, said PPS's circus school was begun in 1998 with support from the National Circus School of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh. He said an important development for the school was in 2003 when they performed in Europe for three months. Since then they have performed over 1,000 shows here and overseas.

"The object of Tini Tinou is to exchange experiences with overseas performers on how to perform a 'social circus'," he said. "[The circus] should be a social performance, having some effect in the community."

This year's "guest of honour" at the festival is the Keita Fodeba (KF) Acrobatic Art Center from Konakry city in Guinea, West Africa.

"This is the first time an African arts group has performed in Cambodia," said Tini Tinou organizer Manuel Trindade.

Speaking in Phnom Penh last Friday, KF Director Ibrahima Bamba indicated that the aims of his organization and PPS were similar, as both Cambodia and Guinea have similar recent war torn histories. "Guinea has many refugees from the surrounding countries which have war issues, so we needed to establish an association to help street children and children in distress," he said, referring to KF's beginnings. "KF's 15 performers will present a show including theatre and circus, involving the culture and situation of Guinea. We call it 'new circus', and we have had technical support from PSS. As you know, if it's from Africa it must also have some dance."

Apart from the KF, PPS and RUFA contributions, there will also be performing troupes from Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Germany, France and Australia. Highlights include the Terra Brasilis Brazilian music group from Germany who will create a new show with PPS students; the "breathtaking physical comedy" of Australia's Tony Rooke Show; and Japanese juggler Atsushi who "gives life to balls and sticks with Kung-fu and Ninja style".

Phnom Penh will be able to have a spectacular foretaste of the festival on Mar 29 with the Tini Tinou Opening Parade, beginning at 4pm at Chenla Theatre and proceeding to the new National Theatre on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, where the first-ever performance in the new building will take place at 6:30pm - featuring Tini Tinou performers.

Dan Poynton is a reporter for the Mekong Times

This article first appeared in The Mekong Times
The Mekong Times is a daily newspaper distributed in Cambodia.
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