Tini Tinou: Circus in Cambodia

Circus performers from five countries will perform at the Tini Tinou International Circus Festival from April 28-May 10 in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap. The National Circus School of Cambodia is always one of the highlights of the festival. This year senior level students will perform a showcase on April 29 and May 1 in Phnom Penh.

Meet Phuok Narin. She is the Director of the National Circus School of Cambodia. She has been performing and teaching circus in Cambodia since being scouted from an orphanage in 1980 at the age of 15. Back then, she says, it was just a “government job”.

Q: What is your official position?

A: I’m the director of the National Circus School of Cambodia under the Ministry of Fine Arts of Cambodia.

Q: How did you first start to do circus?

A: I’m originally from Phnom Penh and both of my parents died under Pol Pot. After the war my brother, two sisters and I were sent to live in orphanages.

In 1979 there were many orphans and many orphanages set up by the government. I was in Kolab 1, but there was also Kolab 2, Kolab 3, and Kolab 4. And the Kolab orphanages were just one initiative of the government, there were also other orphanages. My brother and sisters and I were all in different orphanages, because we were different ages.

In 1980 I was 15 years old. The Ministry of Arts and Culture had set up schools for the fine arts, and there was a department of circus already at that time.

The teachers from the schools went to orphanages and recruited students. The teachers were from Russia and Vietnam and had come to Cambodia to help set up the schools after the war.

Many of the students who were selected to be learning in this circus school were orphans. They were selected from different orphanages. And most of them had lost their parents during the war.

Q: What was the audition process like?

A: They looked at our bodies, they asked us to throw balls, they asked us to do some body movements, and then they would make their selections.  Many children auditioned. The centre where I was for older children only, so there were less than 100 children in the centre.

In fact, I did not show up for the audition because I was busy gardening. But then they came to find me because they hadn’t found enough female students. Only one female student from my orphanage was selected and that was me.

More than 10 people were selected, but they were all boys except for me. Now it’s only me from those 10 people who is still working in circus!

Q: Why do you think you were selected?

A: I think it was because my body was straighter than the others’. And when they asked me to do some body movement, I could do them. Others could not. And many girls did not want to do the movements because in Cambodia it’s considered improper for women to spread their legs. But they saw in me that I had the courage to do it.

Q: So you were selected to train at the circus school, then what happened?

A: I moved from the orphanage to student housing at the National Circus School of Cambodia. There were 45 students when I started. By chance all three girls in my family were selected for the circus school. They had been in different orphanages, but they came to the school with me. My second sister didn’t like it and quit, but my third sister and I continued.

Q: What was it like?

A: It was very difficult. At first we didn’t know what circus was. There was no TV and no internet for us to research or learn about what we were doing. We did not understand what it was. The teachers told us what to do and we had to do it.

Six months after I started training, the ministry sent us to Ho Chi Minh City to see their circus perform. And then we saw circus for the first time and we understood what circus was. And after that we thought we could do it like them and we wanted to do it.

Q: How long was the training?

A: It was four years. I finished the training when I was 20 years old.

Q: And when did you start performing professionally?

A: We started performing right away. After six months of training, we were performing regularly. We performed at all the government events, and we even performed outside of Cambodia in Vietnam, Russia, Mongolia, Laos and Hungary.

It was a government job. I was paid a salary by the government and then we also got some fees from the shows

Q: How long was your circus career?

A: As an artist I started in 1984 and performed from 1984 until 1990 in a duo and then a group of four artists.

I became a teacher in 1990 and continued until 2003. That’s when I became the Director of the National Circus School.

Q: How did you become involved with Phare Ponleu Selpak?

Phare had a performing arts school but in the late 90s they decided to divide it into two schools, and a dedicated circus school was one of the two.

At the time there was someone I knew who got a contract from Phare Ponleu Selpak and because of her they sent teachers to come train in Phnom Penh and then went back to Battambang to open the circus school and teach the students there. They also asked for help from other teachers from Phnom Penh to go to Battambang for one month to train the teachers and then the students.

Q: What do you do as director of the school?

A: I am a teacher and the overall manager of the school. In the morning I work with the students and in the afternoon I work in the office. We have a staff of 16 teachers, but no technicians or other office staff.

Q: What kind of changes have you seen in circus in Cambodia and for circus students?

A: It is different now. For example, when I was a student we did not know much about circus. We didn’t even know what circus was. Now students are exposed to much more. They know what circus is and they see a lot of different things before they get here.

The way we teach is also very different. Before we just had to follow what they teacher and that was it. Now the students have more freedom and they can tell us what they want to do and we can incorporate that.

Q: What’s the environment like for circus performers in Cambodia? What do you hope for your students?

A: My hope is that in the future that our students become professional artists and can compete with international artists and work with international artists. Right now, many graduates have no jobs and they have to do something else to make a living. It’s very difficult to find work as a circus artist and there’s no salary from the government so the artists are really not motivated.

The students are trained in circus, but they don’t get other training through the school or the government. So there is a lack of promotion and marketing and it’s hard to sell tickets to shows and be known.

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