Siem Reap’s ultra-funky Cambodian circus Phare celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, and its director of sales and marketing Craig Dodge says it’s come a long way since its humble beginnings on rented land on February 8, 2013.
Dodge, an American originally from Michigan, says the circus has transformed many people’s lives, including his own, following his decision to run away with the circus in September 2013.
“I was working for a small, local bicycle tour company at the time,” he says. “The Phare sales team came to our office to make a sales call and invited us to experience the show.
“Having the stereotypical American image of what a circus is, I didn’t expect much, but wow, was I mistaken. It wasn’t what I expected at all. It was dramatic, engaging, inspirational, entertaining.
“The more I learned about the exceptionally challenging backgrounds from which the artists came and how they’d transformed their lives through Phare, I became even more impressed.”
Dodge says he signed on with the circus shortly after and his time with the circus to date has not only been fulfilling but also, and perhaps not surprisingly, full of amazing experiences.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget our first US tour in October 2015,” he says. “It started on the West Coast, primarily in areas with large Cambodian-American communities such as Long Beach, Stockton and Oakland.
“The main event, though, was the Ringling International Arts Festival in Sarasota, Florida. Ringling is the original, iconic American circus, so it was a huge honour to be invited.
“The reviews were without exception positive. The artists were recognised almost everywhere we went in Sarasota.
“After the last performance, the festival organisers told me that the CEO of Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, flew his private jet from Las Vegas to Sarasota just to see Phare.
“Someone had called him after opening night and told him he had to see it. They weren’t allowed to share that with us until he left. We had a de-brief in one of the hotel rooms at the end of the night, and everyone was crying, because things went so amazingly well.”
He fondly recalls that, given the performers’ Cambodian experiences, they were able to power on despite a devastating power outage during an Australian performance.
“We went to Adelaide, Australia, to perform in the OzAsia festival in 2016,” he says. “It was Phare’s first time to Australia.
“We have a good following in Australia, as it’s one of the top markets for us at our venue in Siem Reap. There is a history of artistic circus there, so they seem to ‘get it’ better than most.
“At every performance, there were people who told us they had seen us in Siem Reap. Some even flew from places like Sydney and Melbourne, just to see Phare.
“The Today Show did a weather forecast from the festival and showed Phare performing on live TV on Australia’s most-watched morning news programme.
“The craziest thing was probably that the worst storm in 50 years hit while we were there, even knocking out the power.
“Power outages are pretty routine for Cambodia, but not Adelaide. It was funny to see the different reactions.
“Because the festival was in a park, several days were canceled by the storm. One of the performances was supposed to be for an arts presenter’s conference. It was important for us to present to them, so the artists went to the rained-out venue to get some props, rushed to the conference centre and put on a quick show for the arts presenters.
“The determination and spontaneity of the Phare artists never ceases to amaze me.”
Dodge says it was also fascinating for him to see young Cambodia kids, from the sticks so to speak, travel the world, attend fancy functions and see how the well-heeled live.
“In November 2013, a woman asked me after the show if we perform at outside venues,” he says. “I said sure. She asked me if I’d ever heard of Song Saa Private Island Resort.
“I said of course. She asked if we were available to do a performance there on Christmas Eve. I said by all means.
“Phare has since performed there for either Christmas or New Year’s every year for five years.
“Each time, there are members of the troupe or technicians who had never even seen the ocean before, let alone ride in a ‘James Bond’ power boat or visit a 6-star luxury resort. They barely slept for the three days we were there.
“It reminds me how fortunate I am, to not take things for granted, and how I can help them not only have good-paying jobs, but also have experiences they may have never been able to have otherwise.”