Phunam Pin performs a delicate balance with her partner as they perform a circus-style romantic scene. Photos courtesy of Michael Burr.
It’s like your typical night out at the local dive bar, and the whole gang is there: the life of the party, a generation-X pretty boy, that charming bartender, a clumsy waiter, the forbidden lovers and some spunky musicians.
The only difference: They’re all Khmer-speaking acrobats.
The Phare Cambodian Circus presented Khmer Metal at the Carpenter Center Sunday for the first-ever performance of its first U.S. tour.
Khmer Metal is unique from Phare’s other shows in many ways. It’s the first to be scored by bass-heavy rock music, and the first to take place in a dirty bar setting with the storyline like a romantic-comedy with a hint of risqué. Most importantly, it’s the first Phare production to be conceived entirely by the performers themselves.
“All the shows are different, but all are about Cambodia,” said Sophaline Mao, director of Marketing for Khmer Entertainment of America, a non-profit organization that brings Cambodian performers to the U.S. limelight.
Mao said Phare’s shows intend to shed a different light on life in Cambodia. Khmer Metal is a lighthearted take on the experiences that Cambodian youth share with young people all over the world—love, acceptance, and of course—sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Contortionist Phunam Pin balances her partner in a scene depicting their relationship.
“It’s a modern-day story about the edgier side of Cambodia,” Mao said.
For the performers, it all started at the Ponleu Selpak school in Battambang, Cambodia. The Phare Ponleu Selpak school is non-profit, supported by the Phare Cambodian Circus, a social enterprise partnered with Khmer Entertainment of America.
Thirty of the now professional circus performers have come out of the school, according to Phare Production Manager Coraline Morillon. He said there are 1200 hundred students currently benefiting from the not-for-profit arts programs, and that aspiring professional circus artists must have 9 years of touring experience before joining the Phare team.
Pin is a contortionist and has been a professional circus artist since age 13. Though she performs nightly with the circus, she was nervous for her first U.S. performance.
"The stage is a little bigger than what the performers are used to," Mao said as she dusted Pin’s eyelids with a smoky gray eye-shadow and attached long lashes for a dramatization of her look in the last minutes before she took the stage.
When Pin began attending the Ponleu Selpak school as an 11-year-old, she was living in extreme poverty, searching in garbage for goods to sell in order to keep her family afloat.
Like many of the other performers, she had dabbled in multiple arts at the school before she settled on contortion. On stage, she’s more than an acrobat: she’s a powerful performer. As the “sexy, heartbroken girl” in Khmer Metal, she also sings, dances and shoots arrows with her toes while standing on her hands.
The performance is nothing short of vibrant. With a cast of nine multi-talented characters, the package of acting, improvisation, live musical performance and dance is clever, charming and awe-inspiring.
A performer holds a daring one-arm balance on top of the bar.
What makes the circus unique is the live musical score. The jam band is led by Vanthan Ly, who, along with his two female fellow musicians, composed the blend of rock and Cambodian sound for the show. The musicians sang and rapped as they played electric guitar and bass, multiple percussion instruments and a Roneat ek, a traditional Cambodian Xylophone.
Ly, like many of his fellow circus artists, came from a poor family. According to a press release from Phare, he hadn’t touched an instrument until the age of eight, but was building percussion instruments out of pots and pans and using rubber bands to make guitars. Ly incorporated his modest influences into the score; he opens the show carrying a rusty car door on stage, hangs it up and proceeds to pound out a patent rhythm.
Such multi-purpose props traveled with them from Cambodia, from the bottles for fake-drinking and juggling, a tire for rolling, sitting and balancing, and a table as the centerpiece of the whole dynamic stage.
It’s far from show business. The genuine joy in each performer's face after landing a trick or completing a scene is unmistakable. The trust they share between one another is tangible as they create human totem poles and balance on one another’s hands, heads and backs.
The crowd thanked the teary-eyed, beaming performers with a standing ovation, but it was easy to see the performers shared a mutual gratitude as they hugged and danced with audience members on stage.
The group heads to Stockton, California later this week for a performance on Sept. 26. The tour locations were hand-picked with the purpose of "connecting two cultures" and fostering bonds between Cambodian communities across the world.
For the rest of the U.S. Tour, Phare will travel to Oakland for a short performance in the Give2Asia annual awards gala, then to Sarasota, Florida for the Ringling International Arts festival, and finally to Washington, D.C. at the end of October.
The performer who plays a charming bartender puts on a Diabolo act.