The scene: a hot day in Cambodia. A bar, with young male and female performers flipping, shooting arrows with their feet and dancing.
An alluring stranger, romance, a stolen iPod, and music fuel an exciting and upbeat performance called Khmer Metal.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus, touched down in Long Beach earlier this week and they’ve been relatively surprised at their smooth transition.
“When we first discovered Long Beach, we were amazed at how many Cambodian-language restaurant signs there were,” said Dara Huot, Chief Executive Officer of Phare, with a chuckle. “We thought it would be more of an alien culture. But we have tasted more Khmer food than American food—now we want to try other food.”
This fall marks the first U.S. tour for Phare, which was founded in 1994 in Battambang, Cambodia by survivors of the Khmer Rouge—nine young men returning from refugee camps. They decided to share skills they learned in art therapy classes within the camps with the youth in the city. Their school grew exponentially, and they expanded, founding the performance arm of the school—what would become Phare—in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the country’s second-largest city and home of Angkor Wat.
Sunday night’s performance at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) will be their first performance in the U.S. Very fitting, given Long Beach is home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia.
“We have been very boldly welcomed by community leaders in the community,” said Huot.
The tour was kickstarted by an invitation from the Ringling Brothers to perform with them in Sarasota, Florida next month. And if they were going to be in the U.S., performing in Long Beach was a must, according to one of the tour coordinators, Sorany Var.
“It’s kind of like coming home,” said Var. “It was very important to make Long Beach a first stop.”
The particular performance piece the troupe will perform, Khmer Metal, was purposeful as well, said both Var and Huot.
“When people think of Cambodian performance, they think of Apsara dancers and ornate jewelry,” said Var. “Khmer Metal is very modern, showing the evolution of [Cambodian performance] and showcasing modern elements.”
“When we’d ask Europeans about Cambodia and what images come to mind, they’d say four things: Khmer Rouge, landmines, Angkor Wat and NGO [Non-Governmental Organizations],” said Huot. “I feel very sad when people think about that.”
Huot said Khmer Metal was designed to showcase the country’s “positive” young population, which is growing rapidly, as well as the issues they face on a daily basis—issues such as alcoholism, sexuality, drugs and interpersonal relationships in a rapidly-developing country that has emerged, resilient, from a troubled past.
Huot called the youth of Cambodia, including Phare’s performers, an “image of hope.”
“Khmer Metal is probably, we feel, the most contemporary and most easily understood storyline, showing what the youth is experiencing,” said Huot. “Others are about the life of the founders, and what they went through with the Khmer Rouge.”
The performance is designed to trace the often turbulent but ultimately exciting emotions of Cambodia’s youth, said Huot.
Huot hopes that Cambodian Americans viewing the performance gain insight into the daily lives of Cambodians and that there is more to the country than the tragic legacy shaped by the Khmer Rouge.
“There is a lot more to experience and learn about Cambodia,” said Huot. “The message of hope and triumph in life is the greatest achievement.”
Phare, The Cambodian Circus will perform Khmer Metal this Sunday, September 20 at 7:00PM at the Carpenter Center for Performing Arts. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is located at 6200 East Atherton Street. Click here to purchase tickets online.
Above, right and above, left: posters courtesy of Phare The Cambodian Circus.