The Time I Almost Ran Away with the Circus

I was very fortunate to spend some time recently in Chiang Mai with Cambodian circus theatre troupe Phare Ponleu Selpak. Their week long visit here was coordinated by Ratchanok (Nok) Ketboonruang and her local art collective, CNX Art Connex.

I first learned about CNX and their work last December, when Japanese Butoh master Katsura Kan performed his Time Machine and taught a Butoh and Contemporary Dance workshop in Chiang Mai. I had just returned to Thailand after spending five months back in the Bay Area and was very excited when I heard that someone of his stature in the dance world was in town.

I immediately started spreading the word amongst the folks in my local dance community, Dance Chiang Mai, many of whom showed up to both the performance and workshop. Nok was very grateful for my help with promotions and thus began a series of conversations on life, dance, and art.

As I got to know Nok better, I started to learn about CNX Art Connex and their goals. She and I, we discovered, share a common vision for contemporary arts in Chiang Mai and find ourselves playing similar roles in our respective communities.

“Distant Haze” by Phare Ponleu Selpak

We became fast friends with an unspoken pledge to work together and support one another in our projects.

I had not heard of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) when Nok started to tell me about CNX’s next project in Chiang Mai. PPS’s newest production, Distant Haze, which CNX was bringing to town, sounded interesting. Billed as a circus dance theater performance about children’s experience during the Khmer Rouge years, the few photos I saw from the performance captivated my imagination. I committed to helping out however I could with the production.

By then, I was part way through a long essay I’m (still) writing about Katsura Kan and his visit to Chiang Mai. Nok and I agreed that I should also write about PPS’s visit.

I was granted special permission to spend some time with the troupe and record a series of interviews with them, a privilege for which I’m very grateful. PPS are truly an inspiration, not merely because of the important socially conscious work they do, but also because of how, as human beings, they move through the world. It was always a delight to spend whatever time I could with them, to be in the presence of such joy.

They arrived to Chiang Mai late on a Monday night toward the end of January. On Tuesday evening, I made my way to the Alliance Française with much anticipation. There, at the pre-show Artist’s Talk, I got my first glimpse of the troupe and their talents. I also learned a great deal about PPS’s history and the incredible work they do with children and young adults in Cambodia.

I fell in love right away.

While seeing Distant Haze on Saturday night was certainly a major highlight of the week, so too was the day I spent with PPS out at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of town. PPS brought a lot of joy and inspiration to the detained youth that day. I felt incredibly lucky to be there, especially as a Westerner.

One thing that really struck me about the experience at the center was the level of politeness and respect the detained youth displayed for their visitors, as well as the easy affection they showed to one another. I tried to imagine witnessing similar scenes at a juvenile detention center in the US, but it just seemed incongruous and not at all likely.

Over two weeks later, I’m still feeling the vibrations from the week that PPS spent in Chiang Mai. If you’d like to learn more about PPS and their time here, please read the essay I wrote (yes, this was just a preamble!) here:

Circus with a Social Conscience: Cambodian Theatre Troupe Brings Message of Hope to Thailand

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