Nov Sreyleak’s daily routine flowed as smoothly as her acrobatic movements. She would study English in the morning, after which she would work part-time at Siem Reap’s Phare Cambodian Circus.
Afternoons were spent rehearsing her routine, before it was time to welcome 400 or so excited guests for Phare’s daily performances. On stage, Nov Sreyleak, speaking from her home province of Battambang, was a lead female performer in the act, performing contortions and acrobatic movements.
That came to grinding halt with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Since mid-March, the Cambodian government prohibited all public gatherings, as the virus tally increased steadily in the country. All kinds of public performances were prohibited and the lull in tourism meant artists and communities struggled to find an audience.
With the circus shut in mid-March, Nov Sreyleak lost her job, her only source of income and, more importantly, her need to perform.
“I am missing the stage,” said the 29-year-old circus performer. “The performances, the cheerful sounds and claps at the end of the show. The chit-chat and taking photos with the audiences.”
The Phare circus is popular world over for its ability to combine storytelling with dance, music, and acrobatic and gymnastic movements. The performances are popular with foreign tourists.
With her primary and part-time jobs lost, Nov Sreyleak is attempting to sell clothes online to make some money to support the family. After the Siem Reap circus shut down temporarily, she and her husband moved back to Battambang province.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has seen 141 confirmed cases in the country, with most of the cases recorded in late March and April. There have been no deaths and government officials are attempting to slowly restart the economy.
But with almost no tourist arrivals, the tourism sector, as well as establishments like Phare, which rely on tourists, have been deeply affected. And with tourism not expected to bounce back any time soon, tourism workers, entertainers and artists are now in a hopeless situation.
Nov Sreyleak almost faced a crisis when she had to continue repaying a loan from Sathapana. She had invested her savings in a few plots of land in Banteay Meanchey, which she sold to repay her loan installments and sustain the family.
“Luckily, I used my savings to buy some land plots,” she said, “This helped me to not struggle as much as other people.”
Around 160 kilometers west, Phare Ponleu Selpak is a Battambang-based sister organization of the circus. The former is an art school, for performing and visual art students, that runs other community-based programs as well.
The usually bustling art school and creative space was barren in mid-June, with the arts school shutdown due to the pandemic and other events cancelled for now.
Tor Vutha, a co-founder at Phare Ponleu Selpak, said the pandemic and the economic downturn were hurting the arts community in Battambang, given that most of the artists depended on proceeds from ticket sales.
Additionally, donor funding had also been pulled out to support other communities affected by the pandemic, Tor Vutha said.
“The situation is uncertain,” he said. “But we will try to survive. We want to keep our art spirit alive.”
While the government has yet to indicate when performances can resume, Tor Vutha said they were preparing for shows with smaller audiences, to maintain social distancing norms, and were exploring the possibility of online shows.
With online shows, performers and organizers were concerned about the lack of emotional connect with the audience, he added.
Long Ponnasirivath, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art, said COVID-19 had had a domino effect on the country, impacting everything including the arts.
He said the restrictions on public events and the lack of weddings and religious ceremonies was hurting performers, who relied on these performance for their monthly income.
Another issue, he admitted, was the lack of involvement of Cambodians in the promotion of the arts, adding that local monetary support at this time would have helped artists and associations.
He said the ministry was finding alternative ways for artists to make money, such as using the media outlets and social media platforms to showcase their skills.
“If they get more views or likes, they can get income through that channel,” he said, referring to YouTube views.
While Phare Ponleu Selpak and the circus anticipate a return to the stage, master puppeteer Mann Kosal believed in May it was time to end his performance.
Mann Kosal is the shadow puppet master at the Sovanna Phum Theatre, where he blends puppetry with the traditional Khmer dance form of Lakhon Khol, and storytelling from the Reamker mythology.
The puppets are painstakingly carved out of long sheets of leather. The puppets are used for two kinds of performance – Sbek Toch and Sbek Thom – and was run two days a week at the theatre’s Boeung Trobek location in Phnom Penh.
After years of financial problems, Mann Kosal eventually decided to shut down the theatre in May because COVID-19 had been the final nail in the coffin. So sure was he of his decision, he donated all of his puppets to the Ministry of Culture, which then made its way to the Secondary School of Fine Art.
“The pandemic put an end to [Sovannaphum],” he said, “We could no longer afford the operational costs.”
Mann Kosal had ended 20 years of dedication to the dying art form, where he intricately carved 400 puppet creations, some of which were sold or displayed at international museums.
Having handed over his puppets, Mann Kosal expected to retire. But, he was pleasantly surprised when the Culture Ministry decided to help save the puppet theater and art association by relocating them to School of Fine Arts. “I felt like we were reborn,” he said.
One of his first performances was for Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk’s birthday last month, where he conducted an online show for Her Majesty, with a social media viewership of more than 100,000 people.
But, something did not feel right for Mann Kosal.
"We are performers on the stage, so when the performance goes online, without an audience, it feels like eating Khmer noodles without the vegetables,” he said.
All the artists VOA Khmer spoke to mentioned their need to perform before a live audience. While, they said, this made the performance a more authentic experience for the viewer, it was also cathartic for them.
Phare Ponleu Selpak’s Tor Vutha said performances helped artists, many of whom come from difficult backgrounds, put aside their problems for a few hours and focus on an art form that made them happy.
He said the lack of performances meant that performers were feeling the additional emotional burden of the pandemic, without an outlet for these emotions.
"Performing is the art of healing,” he said. “It helps reduce the stress of not only our artists but also the audience’s [stress].”