The history of Cambodia is forever scarred by the Khmer Rouge regime, during which more than 2 million people were killed or died due to overwork, disease or starvation. Many were targeted for being members of an ethnic minority, intellectuals or artists. Survivors remain victimised and traumatised by the civil war and KR regime, experiencing unending suffering; yet for most, their stories remain untold.
This unspoken reality is what drives Global Arts Corps to work with young Cambodian Circus performers, second-generation survivors of the genocide, who want to explore the traumatic legacy of silence using their world-class circus skills to tell the story.
Led by artistic director Michael Lessac, “See You Yesterday” was produced in partnership with Phare Performing Social Enterprise, Phare Ponleu Selpak Association and Amrita Performing Arts.
A story beyond words
At about 5 pm on March 31, audiences filled all three rows of seats in front of the stage under the roof of the auditorium of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Clad mostly in grey T-shirts and black pants with scarfs wrapped around their waists, 18 actors came on stage to warm up; eventually a man started to move himself by stepping up on a ladder, greeting the audience enthusiastically.
The same man started to beat a hand drum, singing a traditional wedding song and telling a story. Concurrently, a man held a round glass light and handed it to another man, screaming, “See You Yesterday,” which seemed to represent the changing of one era to another. All artists started piling up on each other like corpses. Then one man tried to free himself from the pile of people and ran around in a frightening way.
Speaking along with the drum, a man started telling a story. A minute later, a woman clad in a black T-shirt started training and correcting 16 students in Khmer traditional dancing and singing, martial arts [Bokator], circus, juggling and so on. A man who had been standing in the background came forward and started saying that his family was killed in the Pol Pot era because of that teacher.
Suddenly, the scene changes to the Pol Pot era. Sitting on the shoulders of a man, the art teacher (who is now the head of a group of cadres), issues an order to kill artists and singers. The people to whom the orders were issued did not want to do it, and were killed instead. A collection of sounds arose, families were forced to separate, arts and religion were demolished. The art teacher said, “Religion is an opiate of the people.”
All the people were told to work hard in the rice fields, forming three rows, and are watched by a few cadres. A girl died on the spot in the rice field from overwork, while the others watched and cried silently. The cadres slaughtered a man in public as a warning to others, dragging him around and beating him badly. (His body was flexible, like a circus performer’s.) As the drum beat, people started fighting each other as they were ordered to.
Suddenly, a man emerged holding the light again. With many different musical rhythms and applause from the audience, the scene brought many beautiful insights through dance, circus acrobatics (male and female), and juggling. They danced in a row together. At one point the dance changed to hip-hop and break dancing.
A few minutes later, the scene changed again. While others were working in the rice field, a pregnant girl walks out and starts dancing. Afterward, she gave birth and asked for help from the cadres. Instead, she was kicked to death. Her new baby was taken by a girl. Sadly, she was seen by the cadres. She tried to escape, running and sometimes crawling thought the forest and mountains, and even gates. (All these mountains, forests and gates were represented using the circus artists’ bodies.) But she was eventually caught after stepping on a land mine. She decides to give the newborn baby to the head of the cadres before the mine explodes. Then her body is floated along in the water as part of a Khmer traditional ceremony. (The actors used their bodies to represent the water on which her body floated.)
The lights went out, a girl came out from a tree having watched all of these stories including the killings, and people praying to a Buddha statue.