CHIANG MAI, FEB 16, 2011—While tensions at the Thai-Cambodian border were mounting in January, culminating earlier this month in an eruption of violence that has already resulted in several deaths, Cambodian circus theatre company Phare Ponleu Selpak spent a week in Chiang Mai, sharing a message of hope and good will with many generations in the Northern Thai city.
Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a French-Khmer hybrid which translates as “the brightness of art,” has its origins in the Site Two Refugee Camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1986, French aid worker Veronique de Grope began teaching art to Cambodian children who had been traumatized by years of violence at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The idea was not only to give the children a creative outlet to express the devastation they had suffered, but also to equip them with skills that would help them build new lives for themselves.
Inspired by this formative arts experience in the refugee camp, after their return home in 1992, a group of former Site Two children decided to recreate the PPS school in Cambodia. Since its formal inception in 1994, PPS has grown into an NGO of international repute that now caters to well over a thousand children and teens every day. Its circus school, formed in 1998, has performed shows all over Cambodia, Asia, and Europe.
With an emphasis on creativity and the arts, PPS’s mission is to provide Cambodian children with an education, broadly construed to include life skills, social skills, and personal development. There are three different schools to facilitate PPS’s arts education program—the founding visual arts school, a music school, and a performing arts school, which is comprised of the circus school and a theatre school. The PPS compound, located in the northwestern Cambodian city of Battambang, includes a child care center, a leisure center, a library, and a public school, where the children receive a formal education.
Everything is provided free of charge.
PPS also provides social services to the most vulnerable children—those who have been orphaned, trafficked, are living in dire poverty, or who have suffered neglect or abuse. In addition to the public school and arts education offered to the greater population, these children receive health care and counseling, as well as three healthy meals a day. About 30 live onsite at the child care center, while others live nearby with their families.
In its sixteen years, PPS has transformed the lives of thousands of Cambodian children, nurturing them into healthy, happy, and productive individuals, ready to take on the challenges of adult life, which often includes financially supporting their families. Many go on to have successful careers in the arts, as well as in the private and public sectors.
Nineteen year old Phunam, the youngest and only female member of the troupe visiting Chiang Mai, says that joining PPS at age seven changed her life. Before then, she was getting up at four or five in the morning to collect trash on the streets so that she could help provide basic necessities for her poverty-stricken family. Now, she says, she has time to devote to her studies in Management at the university while also earning an income pursuing a career as a circus artist.
Apart from her impressive contortion skills (in Distant Haze, for example, Phunam balances in a back-breaking handstand while using her feet to fire an arrow that bursts a balloon several feet away), she also speaks five different languages. Her training in the circus, she says, has made her very strong, both physically and mentally. It has made her smart. What is most telling is her statement that joining PPS taught her “how to be a better person, how to live my life day by day.”
At Tuesday night’s Artist Talk in Chiang Mai’s Alliance Française, the young circus troupe, who boast an assortment of faux hawks, piercings, and skinny jeans, sit together at the top of the room and take turns introducing themselves in Khmer or French while Repertory Manager, Chanreaksmey Khuon, translates into English. After a slide show presentation outlining both PPS’s work in Cambodia and the storyline of Distant Haze, the production they are bringing to Chiang Mai, the assembly gathered in the Alliance gets a small taste of the circus feats they can expect to see in Saturday night’s performance.
One young man lies on the floor holding his arms in the air, while another balances upside-down on his hands. The two maintain this hand-to-hand position as the base moves from lying to standing, as though it were the easiest thing in the world. A few more acrobatic hand-to-hand stunts has everyone in the room gasping.
During the question and answer period that follows this brief demonstration, Artistic Director, Det Khuon, explains how the educational mission of PPS’s circus school goes beyond getting kids off the street and transforming them into well-equipped, creative young adults. In their theatrical performances, from large productions to informal street performances, they also seek to raise awareness about important social issues that are especially relevant to the Cambodian people, whether they be city folk or villagers, such as land mines (which still pose a serious threat in parts of Cambodia today), sexually-transmitted diseases, and human rights.
Distant Haze, the company’s newest multimedia theatrical work, tells the story of Sokha (which means “healthy”), a young girl who witnesses and becomes haunted by visions of atrocities committed during the Cambodian Civil War and subsequent Khmer Rouge regime. During Saturday’s performance, we see children cowering in fear as bombs are dropped overhead. We see the terror of despotic rule, as citizens are brutally rounded up, taken forcibly to labor camps, and made to drudge away endlessly in the fields. And we see what happens to those too starved or exhausted to keep up the grueling pace.
It all sounds very dark and depressing, certainly not something you would want to bring your children to see. Yet the beauty of PPS’s work is that it is able to tackle such bleak themes without leaving one with a sense of futility or despair. On the contrary, the young troupe of performers is so full of vitality and the joys of life, it’s impossible to leave the theatre without feeling anything other than hope and good will.
While the horrors of war and brutal oppression are frankly depicted, we are not made linger too long on these dark scenes, which are never overly-graphic or heavy-handed in their dramatization. For example, when one laborer collapses in the field, he is dragged off behind a projection screen where we see bodies in silhouette play out a dramatic acrobatic scene. The picture is clear enough. Our imaginations, should we choose to go there, can fill in the details.
It is remarkable how seamlessly director Det Khuon integrates the various circus performances into the overarching narrative of the piece. The children’s treacherous escape from tyranny is depicted in a tight-rope walking scene, and the nighttime visions that haunt young Sokha, the main protagonist, are revealed through a beautiful, oneiric contortion dance that evolves into an acrobatic duet when the ghoulish figure lurking in the shadows sneaks into the sleeping Sokha’s bedroom. Rather than distracting from or interrupting the storytelling, the physical theatre becomes essential to it.
The circus aspect of the performance is also what ultimately provides the comic relief, leaving the audience reassured and exhilarated after the grimness of some of the earlier imagery. The hair-raising acrobatic stunts have everyone on the edge of their seats, like the “rola bola” act, in which one of the performers, twenty-nine year-old Aloy, the eldest in the troupe, balances on a wooden board that sits precariously on a stack of metal cylinders, all wiggling back and forth underneath as he attempts to climb on top and find his equilibrium. Another performer climbs up and stands on his shoulders, and then another climbs on top of him and does some hand to hand acrobatics.
This feat is all the more spectacular after witnessing many youth in the juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Chiang Mai attempt to stand on the rola bola with only one cylinder to contend with. Few are able to find their balance for very long without holding onto Aloy, one of their teachers for the day. But everyone has a lot of fun trying.
Mid week, before their big performance on Saturday night, PPS spend two days at Regional Juvenile Vocational Training Center 7 Chiang Mai, where youth ages twelve to twenty-one are incarcerated for eighteen months on average. On Wednesday, the troupe preview Distant Haze for the 700 juveniles living on the large compound. The following day, they return to teach a daylong circus arts workshop.
The juveniles—mostly males in their teens, many bearing amateur-looking tattoos or their arms and legs—wear an informal uniform of crew-cuts and white t-shirts with dark-colored shorts or sweats. They trickle in slowly at first, unsure of what to expect. Some sit around the edges of the large gymnasium to observe.
The workshop is conducted in Khmer, which Manager Chanreaksmey Khuon translates into English, which is then translated into Thai. Communication between the seven young Cambodian performers and the eighty to a hundred Thai teens they are teaching is no problem, however. After a few warm-up exercises and games that has everyone cheering and laughing, the youth split up into five rotating groups where they learn some specialized circus skills—rola bola, juggling, diabolo (a large spool which is balanced and tossed on a string tied to two sticks), handstands, and acrobatics.
At the end of the day, we are all formally presented with plaques depicting Ganesh, handmade by the youth that morning. Without a doubt, PPS’s time at the juvenile center has brought not only tremendous relief from the drabness of daily life on the compound, but also inspiration for the youth detained there. Many thanks and good wishes are exchanged in Thai, English, and Khmer, and the youth clap and cheer enthusiastically for their teachers.
Everyone is all smiles as we return to Chiang Mai for some much deserved ice cream.
Two days later, it’s time for the big performance of Distant Haze at the Chiang Mai College of Dramatic Arts. That afternoon, hundreds of local children arrive by the busload and pile into the theatre for a free preview of the show. It is another prong in PPS’s outreach educational program, coordinated by local collective CNX Art Connex, PPS’s primary host in Chiang Mai.
The local children are noticeably less self-conscious about applauding the spectacular circus feats than the mostly Western adult audience are at first in the evening show. Both audiences, however, are effusive in their appreciation, frequently alternating between breathlessness and loud cheering. It is a testament to PPS’s artistic ability that they can communicate so effortlessly to so many generations, regardless of their native language or cultural background.
After the show, many express gratitude for the opportunity to learn about the Cambodian experience of war and devastation during the Khmer Rouge regime. PPS are praised for their sensitive handling of such bleak themes and for their ability to leave everyone elated, in spite of it all. Certainly, the daring athleticism is a major source of the joy, but so too is the message that through artistic expression and honest confrontation, trauma can be transformed into a thing of beauty.
Monday evening, days before fighting breaks out over a disputed 11th-century temple in Preah Vihear on the Thailand-Cambodia border, the Thai-Cambodian cultural exchange taking place in Chiang Mai draws to an end. Members of host group, CNX Art Connex, and their friends from Chiang Mai’s Wandering Moon Theatre group come to the train station to see off Phare Ponleu Selpak. The young Cambodian artists all speak glowingly of their time in Chiang Mai and express hope that they can return again soon.
The Bangkok bound train is late, so a “rock-paper-scissors” battle ensues on the platform, which has everyone in hysterics of laughter. Tommy, a Kenyan reggae artist based in Thailand, happens to be waiting for the same train and decides to join in on the fun and games.
“These guys are great,” he says with a big smile. “I love them!”
Published in Home and Beyond: Artists in Dialogue, Issue 12, by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), February, 2011.
Distant Haze was created as part of PETA’s Mekong Creative Communities: Arts for Advocacy Fellowship, 2010. Main support provided by Save the Children through the European Union. Additional contributions from Terre des Hommes.
Phare Ponleu Selpak’s week-long visit to Chiang Mai was coordinated by CNX Art Connex.