One Quarter Journal


Brightness of the arts


Craig Dodge: Director of sales and marketing for Phare, The Cambodian Circus


The Circus uses the arts to provide careers and opportunities for disadvantaged Cambodians

The tagline of Phare, The Cambodian Circus is ‘Uniquely Cambodian, Daringly Modern’ – a sentence that bears much weight in light of the country’s recent history and its suffering under The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). Seizing Cambodia in 1975, CPK – also known as the Khmer Rouge – ruled the country until Vietnamese occupation in 1979. A vision of the CPK was to return the country to ‘Year Zero’ and to strip it of its culture, tradition and place in the modern world – which they attempted to achieve through genocide of, amongst others, the educated classes. Nearly two million Cambodian people were murdered in this time and with them much knowledge of the country’s cultural traditions was lost.

While the Vietnamese occupation saw the power of the CPK reduced, the impact of the regime continued to inflict wounds upon the country well into the nineties with the scars evident today. Founded as a school in 1994, Phare Ponleu Selpak (Phare) – which is the parent organisation to Phare, The Cambodian Circus (The Circus) - provides valuable art therapy and a formal education to students with backgrounds affected by this time. Students who receive education at Phare then have the opportunity to perform with The Circus – and have the skills to become confident, international performers.

As an audience member, The Circus is energetic, theatrical and engaging and it’s clearly evident that Phare is playing an important role in shaping contemporary Cambodian culture and guiding it forward. It's projects such as this that make visiting Cambodia a unique experience as like Christchurch, New Zealand it is also going through a period of transition and redefining its place in the world - following my own recent trip I caught up with Craig Dodge - The Circus' Director of Sales and Marketing - to find out more.

Can you tell me about the idea behind the parent organisation to The Circus, Phare Ponleu Selpak?

The school was founded by eight young men returning to Battambang, Cambodia from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. In the camp, they had participated in drawing classes - art therapy - with a teacher from France as a way of helping them through the trauma of what they had experienced. These eight men along with their teacher opened the school to help their community heal; through education, art therapy and social outreach. The academic and vocational education programs help the local youth from unimaginably difficult social and economic backgrounds to transform their lives and earn a decent living through art to support themselves and their families.

From here, where did the idea come from for Phare, The Cambodian Circus?

The Circus was the next logical step for Phare as the students there were becoming amazing artists with few work opportunities in the field. The Circus gives them an opportunity to earn good money through the nightly performances in the Big Top and at private performances throughout Cambodia and overseas. Additionally, The Circus helps financially support Phare through royalties, fees and the majority of eventual profits - as Phare is the majority shareholder of The Circus.

What sort of training and support do the artists in The Circus receive and how are they paid for their work?

Most of the training and show development take place at Phare in Battambang. At our venue, the coach and artistic director help the artists to professionalise and perfect the show for the nightly performances. We have an on-site physiotherapist who supports them from the physical demands of their art. The performers earn a fee for each performance in the big top or at a private event and there are also additional benefits through the personal and professional development programs we offer. Working with us also provides some exciting domestic and international travel opportunities that the performers may never have had otherwise.

Are you able to tell me more about some of these international travel opportunities?

Phare artists have performed in France, Switzerland, the UK, Singapore, Korea, Japan and Bangladesh - I may have missed a few! Part of their professionalism and a graduation requirement is touring in France. We hope to expand the international tours, but between the Phare and The Circus there just isn't the money. What we need is producers on the other end to bring the groups over.

Is Australia on the cards?

Phare hasn't been to Australia yet, but it would make sense as Australia seems to be one of our biggest markets. Australians "get it" more than most other nationalities – I guess that’s a broad generalization! If the funding and venue can be worked out on that end, the talent can be worked out on this end. Have talent, will travel!

We’ll look into it! The travelling performers must love the experience?

It's life-changing. Without this program, most of these youths may never even leave their village. Last year I took a group to perform at Song Saa Private Island resort for Christmas. For three of them, it was the first time they'd ever seen the ocean. Their excitement brought tears to my eyes. I don't think they slept much for three days.

I read that one performance, 'Sokha' tells the story of a woman haunted by the destruction of the Khmer Rouge – how do the younger performers view and understand the recent history of Cambodia and are there any artists that wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing this story?

The stories are mostly written originally by one of their teachers, and then developed together at Phare. The story lines are very real to the artists which adds to the passion, energy and sincerity with which they perform them. They are telling guests about their own lives, history and culture with the performances.

The artists in 'Sokha' take great pride in sharing the story. It’s their story. It’s the story of the school where they spent so many years finding the beauty inside themselves and all the opportunities it brings. It’s not so much about the Khmer Rouge per se, but about surviving and thriving: triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Some of the performers were themselves born in the refugee camps. I don’t know that any artists would not want to tell the story. They are not afraid to share where they’re from or what they’ve been through. It’s a quality I greatly admire.

One of the goals of The Circus is to develop the artistic culture of Cambodia – are you able to tell me what contemporary Cambodian artistic culture looks like now compared to twenty or thirty years ago? How do you see the development of this culture benefitting Cambodia in moving forward from its recent history?

I am not qualified to answer this because I’ve only lived in Cambodia for three years and my background is tourism management, not art. From where I’m sitting, though, and from my limited understanding, there was a dramatic break from an exceptionally rich artistic tradition with the Khmer Rouge, which decimated the artistic and educated classes. Now there are a few awesome organisations working on reviving traditional and modern Cambodian arts, such as Phare and Cambodia Living Arts. I am deeply moved when Cambodians come to see our shows and are reminded of the beauty, hope and possibilities through art.

Interviewed by
Alice Bradshaw

Photography by