Battambang is a pretty unassuming place. It is easy to walk around, there is very little traffic, and the centre has a nice little café culture that I was happy to make the most of for the couple of days that I was in the small city in the north-west of Cambodia. What I really wasn’t expecting to find here, was a circus and arts school. It seems like a niche area of learning that you might expect to find in the capital city of a country – nevertheless, I was happy to make the discovery as I am a big fan of performance. When I’m at home I visit the theatre a fair bit, I have a load of friends who work as actors, and I’m especially interested in physical work, so circus skills are right up my street. Fortunately, the school puts on regular shows and I happened to be in town for a show of theirs called ‘Chills’.
Right now, it’s full-on rainy season in Cambodia. It’s driving me potty and I almost didn’t make it to the show since it was chucking it down so hard. Fortunately, tuk tuks are never hard to find so I dashed out of the café I was hiding in, jumped in a tuk tuk, and headed for the school, which is a short drive outside of Battambang town. I arrived and found a handful of other tourists who braved the rain and some very welcoming people who showed me into an exhibition they were hosting before the show started.
The actual show was nothing short of incredible. I’m not saying that because I haven’t been to the theatre in ages, or because I felt sympathetic towards the performers because they are teenagers – it was genuinely great. What was really impressive about the performance was the synergy of their circus, acrobatic, and dance skills, and the fantastic storytelling that was on display throughout. A guy doing flips and juggling sharp objects is impressive, but this was all woven into a compelling story, and there were some particularly impressive character actors within the cast. My favourite scene was a courtship ritual between a teenage guy and girl, in which the guy is flirting by showing off his (outstanding) diablo skills.
Before going to the show, I simply saw a circus show advertised and hopped into a tuk tuk. But there is much more the circus school than this. Phare Ponleu Selpak was set up in 1994 and it works with kids in poverty to offer them a way of living as artists and performers. It was set up by young Cambodians who had recently returned from refugee camps and used art as a way to work through their trauma, and almost twenty years on it is still showcasing the power of art. If you ever find yourself in Battambang, I implore you to see a show by these skilled performers. This was easily my favourite night out in Cambodia and I can’t imagine anybody not being completely taken with the performance and the great work the school does. Do visit the school’s website for more information about their work.