Education is one of the most important things in our lives. Not only for our children, but for every person on the planet. It helps set a different perspective, that obfuscates your field of vision and causes new horizons to come into view. Painting a different world to enter into. Fresh with ideas and wisdom, spread by the people you meet and the experiences you share. There are always new opportunities to learn in your life, you just have to be open to the possibility of change.
We arrived in Battembang on Sunday the 21st of November. Stepping off the dock of our boat we were greeted by the din of tuktuk drivers looking for a job. Our mouths set off a machine gun utterance of no’s until, eventually, we found someone to take us to our hotel. Shooing away the other drivers like flies. Driving to our hotel we realized something very different about Battambang. There were no signs in English, there were no tourists to be found, and the constant jabbering of Kemehr was lilting through the air. We made it to our hotel and set our stuff down. Immediately afterward we caught a tuktuk to Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) to see the space where we would be teaching workshops for the next week.
Upon our arrival I was in awe of the giant complex of PPS. A large grassy courtyard surrounded by buildings. We were greeted by a young girl named Zoe who gave us a tour of the complex. Pointing out the fine arts school, the animation school, the communications school, the music school, the circus school, and the general education school, to which, hundreds of students attend. My mouth dropped as she listed off program after program. Showed us the new building they constructed for the circus school and the circus tent. Eventually leading us to the restaurant and bar, something that I was not expecting to see at the school. Tyler and myself sat down to dinner and met some of our fellow performers and teachers for the festival and learned that there was going to be a show that night featuring some of the circus students from PPS. We ate our dinner and headed into the circus tent, sweating from the hot Cambodian air constantly swatting impudent mosquitoes. We sat down on the hard wooden bleachers and waited for the show to start. The lights went dim and the first piece, Whereabouts Sunrise, Began.
Whereabouts Sunrise was a modern dance piece choreographed by a half french half Kemehr man from France, Saro. It featured 10 students from the circus program all built like gods more than men. The piece was about the work camps of the Kemehr Rouge. A dictatorship from 1975 to 1979 who forced hard labor on all the people of Cambodia. They gave them no more than 3 spoonfuls of rice a day. The Kemehr Rouge is also responsible for the surprising lack of older people here in Cambodia. Because, during the Kemehr Rouge, 2 million people were killed, executed, or starved to death out of a population of 7 million. The dance was breathtaking. The students showed off their skills as circus performers infusing tumbling and juggling into the dance. That, however, wasn’t the part that took my breath away. It was the stunning life that the performers showered on the audience. Their sense of presence and focus on the dance. I couldn’t help but cry during the piece, watching a young man cringing in a pool of light, tears streaming down his face. Feeling from him the hopelessness and struggles that his parents were forced to face.
After Whereabouts Sunrise there was a tight-wire act performed by other performers from PPS. Showing circus prowess that is hard to find in the US. It was a long act, too long, showing skills that I have never seen before. One of the students balanced on the tight-wire and juggled 7 balls. I always thought juggling 7 balls was impressive enough but on the tight-wire. That’s just insane.
As I sat and watched the amazing tricks on the tight-wire, I couldn’t help letting my mind wander. Chewing the proverbial cud of my psyche. Pondering on the imagery of Whereabouts Sunrise. My mind caught in a cataclysm of enlightenment. Thinking “This is why! This is why art has to be made. It holds onto our history, helps defuse the pain and anguish of past generations, and helps restore the culture,” to which the Cambodians have lost because of the Kemehr Rouge. Stripped of their history and beliefs the Cambodian population has built itself up in a western image. Forgetting their own power, their own past, their own quintessential identity. To see a show, filled with images of the past, presented by those who hold the future, was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
We caught a ride back to our hotel images of silhouettes being piled up like the dead rushed through my mind. I went to bed that night with powerful images consuming my consciousness. Wondering what the workshops with the students would be like. After seeing their work I was excited to see who we were working with, hoping that we would have some students from the dance the night before. We woke up early in the morning to teach our first day of workshops. One class of juggling, one class of clowning, and one class of partner acrobatics. All of them 2 hours long with kids who speak little to no English.
We started our juggling workshop at 9 in the morning, many young faces wishing to see what these two American clowns were going to teach. The students came in and started picking up juggling balls. Not 3 balls but 5. Almost every single kid could juggle 5 balls and was working on new tricks. Their skill level was off the charts in comparison with most circus students in the US. Tyler started the class by everyone picking up 3 balls and juggling around the space. Our students seemed to be apt at the task. However, it seemed as if they had never done this before. The next exercise had a similar reaction. We played a game of combat juggling, where everyone has to continue juggling as they knock other peoples balls out of the way. The kids ate it up. None of them had ever experienced juggling like this before. It was the first time that a new kind of play was introduced to how you juggle. It was then that I realized that this is what we had to offer. More important than any juggling trick. The idea of playing with convention. Offering different perspectives to their expansive circus knowledge. We continued the juggling class introducing new tricks that they had never seen before. Like the walk around and stealing, both partner juggling tricks. When the class was over both Tyler and myself were dripping with sweat. We had never trained in an environment like this. Humid and 80 degrees at 10 in the morning. Continuing the day we took a short beak and headed to our next class, Clowning.
Both Tyler and myself were worried about the class. How were we going to convey the subtleties of clowning when no one can understand a word that I am saying? Before we started the class we made sure that we had a translator. The class started with simple games that needed no more than gesture. The room seemed very attentive on our every motion. Never giving up a glance to peruse the crowd that was gathering in the doorway. We continued the class struggling to convey the message of our exercises. Even though we had a translator, the subtle details of the work was lost to our students. Eventually, as we regained our composure, the class started to flow. We started to get into a grove with simple body work. Realizing that the only way to really convey the exercise was by showing. Taking advantage of the crude raw power of body language.
We finished our workshop with a bang. Causing laughter to erupt within the students. Teaching them something that they had never experienced before. Physical virtuosity. The concept that the body can communicate just as much, if not more, than words can. That is what we are here to teach, at least in clowning. You don’t need to speak to be funny. And often times when you don’t speak, you transcend cultural boundaries. Making more people laugh than you would otherwise. Getting closer to universal comedy and touching the human spirit.
Our day finished with teaching a partner acrobatics class, which was effortless to teach. Using all the lessons we had learned from our other workshops. Throughout the week we continued teaching the workshops and rehearsing our show. Continuously drenched in our own sweat. Exerting more energy in the heat than either of us would have liked too. Teaching new patterns in our juggling class. Showing the clowning basics, causing our students to make each other laugh. Throughout the week both the students and teachers grew enlightened to what clowning is. Throughout the week most of our partner acrobatics students left to perform elsewhere in Cambodia, cutting our class short. As we gave our workshops, a constant flow of people would come and go as they liked. Except for clowning. The students showed incredible motivation. There was no requirement to attend class but the students would show up every day with energy, creativity, and silliness.
With our constant attendance of our Clown workshops, I realized that that was what we really had to teach. To educate these children on forms of character, mime technique, and exaggerated silliness. Giving them new expression to fill their own dexterous performance. With our workshops now over it made me wonder if we made any difference at all here at PPS. But, with great pride, the other night we watched two of our clowning students perform a piece we taught them in our clowning workshop. Full in make up, acting extremely silly, they delighted the audience every time they were on stage. Our students received some of the biggest audience response of the night. I was touched. Watching 2 new clowns enter the world, knowing that we had some small part of their growth into clowning. Understanding that they have had it from the start, they just needed someone to lay down the foundation. We can leave here satisfied knowing that we started 2 clowns on their way to silly, stupid, and sublime. Helping us understand the heart of education: sharing your own lessons and watch as others take them, make them grow, and then show you something completely new. Forever caught in a spiral of human curiosity.