Circus has a long history in its origins of khmer traditional art dating as far back to the pre-Angkorian era, as evidenced by the sculptures carved on various ancient temples.
However, since the post-Angkorian era, circus seems to remain only within some forms of magic shows (referred to as “pahi”) without the required staging or reverence. This changed after liberation day, 7th January 1979, when the Cambodian People’s Party led by the three Samdech, our friends in Vietnam and the former Soviet Union supported us to set up National Circus School of Cambodia.
Cambodian circus art is form of performing art which has been in existence and has grown in Cambodia ever since the great empire era. It can be seen in the sculptures on Ba Puon Temple built by King Otey Tiddhyavarman II (1050-1066 “Shivaism), Angkor Wat temple built by King Suryavarman II (1113-1152, “Vishnuism”), and Bayon Temple built by King Jayarvarman VII (1181-1218, “Mahayana Buddhism”)
Most of these sculptures depict archetypal scenes of daily life, though, there are clear examples of circus performance art imagery found in the Elephant Terrace, Sdech Komlung terrace and other temples of that period. It was likely that the Suor Proat Temple was also connected with circus arts during the great Empire Era as the sculptured period depicts acts of concealment, manipulation, animal training, and a variety of other skills.
It was unfortunate that with the fall of the Great Empire in the mid 14th Century, the genre of circus arts also seemed to disappear. However, magic and manipulation remain; these ‘tricks’ were performed by people pretending to have natural gifts without preparation. According to the available information and records, between the time of the fall of Angkor (1353) until the civil war of the late 20th Century (1970) Cambodian circus arts have never had an official presence. That changed on 20 September 1980 when the National Circus School of Cambodia opened its doors.
Created when Comrade Keo Chanda was Cambodia's "Minister of Culture & Art" and with the generosity of Vietnamese and Russian trainers the first forty-five students were enrolled for circus study. The majority of these students were orphans whose parents died during the Pol Pot regime.
The school operated a foundation class for one year trained by Vietnamese teachers and ten students were then selected to continue their training the Soviet Union; the remaining 35 students continued training and performing locally in Phnom Penh.
By late 1986 the Vietnamese and Russia teachers had obtained their goal by training their students into circus artists who could pass on their expertise to following generations, so they returned to their respective countries and our was led by Mr Hang Soth under the management of the department of arts.
In 1990, management of the school was transferred to the Royal University of Fine Arts, falling into the faculty of Choreographic Arts and responsibility was handed to Mr Nuth Sammony. At that time and during the following years many students became artists and former artists became teachers.
In 2003, the Royal University of Fine Arts was divided into two institutions; the Intermediate School of Fine Arts and the Royal University of Fine Arts. The circus school was placed under the management of the Intermediate School of Fine Arts with trainer Ms Phok Narin as head of the Circus School, a role she remains in to this day.
In 2010, as a result of our continuing great relationship with the Vietnamese Government and their circus school they donated a circus stage to our school. The Cambodian Ministry of Fine Arts then granted us a location within the Cultural Development Centre where our circus training continues.
It is from that time that Cambodia has its official form of circus arts, activities and performances both nationally and internationally.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism of Vietnam and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts of Cambodia, a modern style center of Circus Arts was agreed to be collaboratively funded and a location for the construction agreed upon. This structure would be a fully functional Circus Space with 1000 audience seats. This was opened on 26th September 2012 by H.E Him Chhemm, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts and is where the National Circus School of Cambodia is currently based today.