At the very end of a nondescript gravel road, in a corner of dusty Battambang, deep in the northwestern part of Cambodia, a great big top rises above the simple homes and lives of the surrounding neighborhood.
A circular tent, unusual in this part of the world, holds within it the sounds and sights of a circus. Founded nearly twenty years ago by Cambodians returning from refugee camps along the Thai border, Phare Ponleu Selpak – “the brightness of art” – is a community-based organization providing educational and career opportunities in visual arts, music, theater and circus training.
The energy is electric before the performance: Kids warm up playing pick-up football in the scrubby field. It’s impossible to tell that these youth are from troubled backgrounds; orphaned, abandoned by impoverished families, previously trafficked or sold into prostitution – all with fragmented pasts, but now with smiles, daring moves and hopeful futures.
Partnerships and tours abroad to Asia, France and Australia have introduced some of the young performers to worlds far beyond their childhood imagination; some are sent elsewhere on exchange, others invited to join professional troupes around the globe.
Dusk gives way to nightfall. A display of bright colorful lights above the tent – Cirque Phare Ponleu Selpak – lures locals and foreigners into the magical world of flips, somersaults, hula hoops and clown tricks. Drum rolls, exaggerated gestures and mime acts follow one after the other. Their bodies leap and twirl through the space, celebrating the freedom that comes with creativity and movement. Laughter and applause rise and fall in the stands, filling the air with unbridled joy.
Could you ever imagine that the circus would provide the means for these kids – in a country itself still healing from memories of a brutal recent past – to pick up the broken pieces of their childhoods, find purpose, promise and self-confidence; and in the process, a means of healing for their lives?