Cambodian Circus Group Transforms the Lives of Students Through Art

by Matthew Escosia
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The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the performing arts industry. With live performances and productions either canceled or postponed, the biggest question now is how can professionals from this field cope up with the operation and personal expenses given their normal streamline of income is temporarily stopped.

But despite these challenges, one group from Cambodia is keeping the art alive. For today’s edition of #SEAtizens, we are featuring the globally renowned Phare, an acrobatic group supporting over a thousand students in need of help through their shows.

Phare is the Cambodian equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil, complete with breathtaking acts and nail-biting stunts. Since the founders of this group are comprised of refugees who make it big due to their talent, they have decided to fund the operations of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), an art school in the city of Battambang.

Aside from general education, students of PPS are taught how to do acrobatics and other art skills, whichever fits best with the individual. Given the financially difficult backgrounds of these students, PPS is offering them an opportunity to be trained and be part of Phare professionally.

“Children start circus training at the age of eight, and initially we have a trial period to see what skills fit them best. It takes about eight years before they are ready to perform professionally. Of course, there’s always an element of risk, so to start with there is always a teacher right beside the student to take care of him or her and impart confidence,” shared Khuon Chanreaksmey, deputy director of PPS with South China Morning Post.

Photo from Caravan Circus Network.

Due to the pandemic, funding PPS, which has over 1,000 students, has become a challenge for Phare.

“The government ordered entertainment venues closed in March. It was perhaps the right thing to do from a health and safety perspective during a pandemic, but it is financially devastating. Phare Circus funds 60% of the school’s annual budget through ticket and event sales, which has evaporated since March. 100 artists and staffs depend on the circus for their living,” said Craig Dodge, the Director of Sales and Marketing of Phare Circus in an online interview with SEA Wave magazine.

“At Phare Circus, we’ve done everything possible to keep permanent staff on at reduced hours and salary so that they can still support themselves and their families,” Dodge added.

To support the families of Battambang, who are partly relying on Phare’s aid, the group is also providing financial assistance and relief packs comprised of rice, noodles, tuna, essential cooking items such as cooking oil, salt, sugar and soy sauce, along with soaps, face masks, and hand sanitizers.

A social worker from Phare doing on-ground research with the residents of Battambang

To ensure the children’s educational growth during this period, Phare’s Kindergarten and Child Development Center (CDC) teachers have been reaching out to families in the area to evaluate the students’ remote learning and scarce resources (especially, the equipment essential for online learning) available in their home.

They are currently coordinating with the local authorities and parents to form small study groups of 2 to 5 students living close to each other. Through this, studying will be encouraged and guided by their parent’s support while following hygiene and social distancing practices.

Due to quarantine and social distancing practices, Phare launched a “Stay home, Stay Fit” initiative in Tiktok that allows everyone, including artists from Phare and PPS, to share personal insights of confinement through inspiring artworks.

This initiative is built to cultivate art as an important and liberating practice during this challenging period, serving as an opportunity to nurture the imagination and creativity of all. Some of the artworks have been featured by Phare online.

“Stay Home, Stay Fit was born based on the need for the artists to stay in shape and the need to keep Phare fans engaged while confined at home. We reached out to the artists and asked them to share their work out videos with us and since Cambodians love to film themselves it became a little self-runner. We also wanted to showcase that despite the difficult situation caused by the performance closure we found ways to share our creativity,” shared Sigrid Baldinger, Phare Ponleu Selpak’s Development and Communications Manager, in an online interview with SEA Wave magazine.

A place called home, Design by Panhavorn Han, 1st Year student in Phare Visual Arts School

Khmer confinement, Watercolor on paper by Chankrim Mil, a Phare alumnus

House underwater, Design by Sovireak Ny, 2nd Year Student in Phare Visual Arts School

Although the date of their shows’ resumption is still uncertain, the artists of Phare are still in shape and trying to keep busy. From workouts to testing new and improved circus techniques, they are also producing COVID-19 awareness and fundraising videos for PPS.

“With an eye on safety, Phare Circus is using the time to re-imagine the entire guest experience, from our website & social media, arrival at the venue, visiting the shop and restaurant, seeing the show and bidding farewell to the artists. We are using social media and website to continue engaging with the community and fans around the world,” Dodge noted.

To support Phare and Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), you may visit their official website at

SEA Wave magazine’s SEAtizens initiative is a series of inspiring stories of people in Southeast Asia who champion the human spirit by demonstrating courage, ingenuity, generosity, and selflessness amidst the current crisis.


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