A Homecoming at the Circus

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KT/Fabien Mouret

Voleak Ung, an alum of Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, is back in Cambodia for the Tini Tinou International Circus Festival. Just three days before her return to Cambodia, she graduated from the National Center For Circus Arts in France, after moving there in 2010 with the support of Phare. Ung is now performing with Collectif Open Ticket, an experimental troupe that wowed audiences last Friday during the second night of the festival. Before the show, James Reddick spoke with Ung about her journey from Cambodia to France and back, and about the development of contemporary circus in the Kingdom.
 
Q: Why did you decide to join the circus? 
 
A: When I was young, I saw circus performances on the television and I had met people who had worked at Phare and friends who talked about a really cool school in Battambang where they learn about the circus, films and music. I wanted to see that. So I left my parents’ home at 13 to live with my aunt who lived near the school. I was immediately hooked by the circus. From what I remember, when I watched the circus on television when I was young, I said to myself: ‘Why not me?’. Because I also saw that the people who were in the circus traveled a lot and I wanted to do that. I saw the circus as a way to allow me to travel. 
 
Q: Was your family ok with you choosing such an unusual path?
 
A: I was lucky because my parents were really accepting of what I wanted to do. In Cambodia, when you’re a young woman, it’s difficult for your parents to let you leave. It’s hard for young people here. I was very lucky. They let me leave and they said: ‘Great, do what you want to do.’
 
Q: Now, when they see you perform are they proud?
 
A: Actually, they have never seen me perform. At this year’s festival in Battambang they are going to see me for the first time. That is exciting, and at the same time it is stressful. It will help me to show my parents who I am now, because it’s been a very long time since I left Cambodia. In January it will be seven years.
 
Q: What do you hope Cambodians will think when they see your troupe perform? 
 
A: I want the people here, my friends who go to school, to know what contemporary circus really means. Because here the people are always using the same measures and the same techniques. I wanted to push things a bit. That’s why I brought our collective here. I hope they like it because it’s not at all like what people normally expect here. I’m not sure if it’s going to work. In my opinion contemporary circus isn’t developing much in Cambodia. It’s happening some, but I want there to be more. 
 
Q: Some years ago, you had an accident that forced you to stop performing for a time. What happened?
 
A: I hurt my knee very badly in October 2010, so I stopped working for a year and a half. For two years I didn’t do anything. Fortunately, my host family in France helped me. I said that I wanted to stay in France if possible to continue my studies. They said ‘ok’, and I lived with them and they paid for my studies.  
 
Q: Did you consider stopping?
 
A: No, never. I didn’t want to stop at all, because it was my dream. So I continued, did so much rehab and… voila. 
 

Voleak Ung balances on the arm of a fellow performer. KT/Fabien Mouret
 

Collectif Open Ticket during a performance last week. KT/Fabien Mouret

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