Full Circus

The first time we were in here, 15 years ago, Battambang was just a sleepy backwater in western Cambodia.  The Khmer Rouge had only pulled out of the town five years before, infrastructure was basic, and the road to the Thai border was infernal.  Still recovering from the atrocities of that period, Battambang looked a lot like it did when it was a colonial French outpost.  In 1996, a group of survivors from the refugee camps, along with their French drawing teacher, formed a group to help children deal with their trauma through art. Their organization, Phare Ponleu Selpak, “the brightness of the arts”, has grown into a campus which supports a school for 1000 local children, as well as departments for visual and performing arts.  It is best know, however, for its circus school, which stages popular shows which fund the NGO.

All the shows are choreographed and performed by PPS students, and are of such a high caliber that the circus now has an international touring season.  There is no better place to see them, however, than in the “big tent” on their home turf in a suburb of Battambang.  The walls of the tent are open, letting in fresh tropical night air and the chirping of cicadas, and the crowd – mostly foreigners, but also locals and school groups – are already won over.  With an orchestra of gamelan-like percussion behind them, the jugglers and acrobats can do no wrong, and have fun playing to the receptive home crowd.  It’s a memorable experience, by any measure.

The light is low in the tent, and any photography has to be at a high ISO.  I was shooting at 6400, trying to get a fast enough shutter speed with a narrow aperture.  Fortunately in this shot the acrobat stayed fairly still, allowing the definition of his muscles to be as sharp as possible.  The orchestra musicians were also extremely photogenic, and I like the tension between the convoluted male torso and the beautiful young woman out of focus in the background.

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