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Circus troupe captures Cambodia's contorted history

Agence France-Presse (AFP) logoAgence France-Presse (AFP) 4/19/2015 afp.com

Balancing on her hands, a young contortionist throws her legs over her head and slowly draws back a bow with her toes, before loosing off an arrow into a balloon covered by a black shroud.

Cambodian students train at the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School, in Battambang province © AFP Cambodian students train at the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School, in Battambang province

The balloon bursts and the audience erupts into applause in recognition of the artistry of the feat, but also at the symbolic puncturing of the terrors of the murderous Khmer Rouge era that eviscerated Cambodia in the late 1970s.

Pin Phunam, 23, who plays the title role in the circus show "Sokha", says every movement aims to tell the story of a period of recent history she did not live through, but that hangs over her country.

An estimated two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979.

"People don't talk about the Khmer Rouge, I don't know why. Maybe it is too painful," Phunam says before the show, which explores the country's bloody past using a group of jugglers, acrobats and contortionists in the northwestern tourist town of Siem Reap.

On April 17 the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the triumphant march of communist soldiers into the Cambodian capital, ending a bloody civil war with a US-backed general.

But the date also signalled the start of a hardline rule that turned the nation into a workhouse where starvation, murder and overwork killed a quarter of the population.

While the performers from the circus troupe were born long after the regime fell, they have mesmerised audiences with their recreation of that period since first staging Sokha two years ago.

"Even though we don't have any experience of the Khmer Rouge regime, we can tell the story through our artistic skills," Phunam told AFP.

- From poverty to Big Top -

Instead, like many of the artists from the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School, she draws on difficult experiences of her own.

Phunam was born to a poor family in western Battambang province and spent her childhood scavenging for junk to sell.

"I had a drunken and violent father... I saw my father fighting with my mum every night after he came back from drinking and gambling with friends," she said.

Then, when she was just seven, Phunam joined the nearby Phare Ponleu Selpak school run by former Cambodian refugees to help disadvantaged local youngsters through art.

It was there she discovered her passion for contortion and the expert help to hone her extraordinary skill.

A free public school founded after the art centre now teaches 1,200 pupils.

Just under half of them attend the specialist music, art, theatre and circus schools providing rare opportunities to children from poor families in one of Southeast Asia's least developed countries.

In 2013 Phare opened a circus in the tourist hub of Siem Reap, home to Cambodia's famed Angkor temple complex, to give its graduates a global stage.

"We decided to open this Big Top (circus tent) as a professional venue for the artists who graduated from Battambang to earn a living," said circus operation manager Xavier Gobin.

- 'Circus changed my life' -

Gobin, a former ballet dancer from France who moved to Cambodia eight years ago, has also taken the troupe on tour around the world from Japan to Italy.

Tackling "social issues or themes profound in Cambodian society" lies at the heart of their shows, he said.

Circus performance in Cambodia dates back to the Angkorian period, which lasted from the ninth to the 15th Century, with acrobatic performances etched into carvings on the walls of temples at Siem Reap.

Civil war and the Khmer Rouge destroyed the art and today performers like Phunam are determined to revive it.

"The circus changed my life... I can do difficult things that normal people cannot do," said the contortionist, adding it was not only her livelihood but a medium to help her understand her own country.

Nearly 170 kilometres (100 miles) away at Phare's circus school in Battambang, where Phunam first started her journey, dozens of aspiring young artists are beginning their own.

Perfecting somersaults or balancing their entire body weight on one hand, a new cohort are practising mind-boggling tricks they hope will change their lives.

"I came here because I want to become a professional circus artist," said 17-year-old orphan Phat Sreyleak.

"I want to perform abroad... I want to show foreigners my talent," she said before returning to her trapeze.

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