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Circus artists in Cambodia attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the longest performance. (Photo by Scott Sharick)

PHNOM PENH – Choub Kanha, started her circus career at age 9, recently performed for more than 24 continuous hours in an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the single longest circus performance.

The goal -- drawing post-pandemic tourists to a long-running attraction in Siem Reap, which is best known for the nearby Angkor Wat temple complex -- left the 25-year-old performer depleted.

“I could not properly move my body and muscles,” she said afterward. “I was exhausted.”

Now, with other circus artists of Cambodia’s Phare Ponleu Selpak, she’s anxiously awaiting an answer to the Big Top question: Did the live-streamed performance that drew more than 500,000 YouTube viewers hit the 24 hours and 10 minutes and 30 seconds needed to set a record?

“We don't have a fixed date for the official endorsement from Guinness, they are still processing our application and it usually takes several months. It is likely we will have feedback by August,” said Morgane Darrasse, media, communications and marketing coordinator for Phare Ponleu Selpak.

While waiting, the circus received three other international awards last month.

Phare Ponleu Selpak took the Gold Stevie in the Innovation in Events category and the Silver Stevie in the Innovation in Communications category, competing against 29 countries in the Asia Pacific Region Stevie Awards 2021. The Stevie is a business award that recognizes organizations and working professionals worldwide.

And the circus won a gold for in the Special Event category of the Hermes Creative Awards, which recognize work based “on creativity and what you apparently had to work with, not against the other entrants in the category,” according to the website.

But it is the Guinness milestone that could be a make-or-break proposition for the circus once Cambodia emerges from the pandemic by drawing audiences as tourists return.

Holding a Guinness World Record just doesn’t happen. There are regulations and evaluations that have evolved since the project began in 1951 as a way to settle pub arguments over topics such as “what is the fastest game bird in Europe.” (Answer: A plover.)

Guinness, a brewer, compiled a book of facts and figures that became a perennial bestseller and now irresistible clickbait. The two businesses decoupled in 2001.

“In our experience, big things get noticed,” says the organization’s site, which has a special section just on tourism and destination marketing.

Going for the record was worth a try. “We had to fight together for survival,” said Bo Ratha, an acrobat with 18 years of circus experience. “We knew we had to make it.”

Bou Ratha, circus artist of Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)
Bou Ratha, circus artist of Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)

So on March 7, some 200 Phare Ponleu Selpak performers and backstage helpers began physically and mentally preparing themselves for the circus marathon. After a week of rehearsing, the performers were united as one and ready to perform.

The troupe rehearsed until just before the clock started ticking. They held hands. They focused themselves. They erupted in a loud cheer and began their circus marathon, knowing it would continue into the next day with cameras capturing every feat of circus artistry.

Phare Ponleu Selapak, which has trained and produced artists for more than 27 years, spun off the Phare Performing Social Enterprise in Siem Reap eight years ago to provide jobs for artists. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut off the flow of tourists in the spring of 2020, the two endeavors hit tough times.

Bo Ratha, 30, found himself delivering construction materials for a store in his hometown of Battambang, known throughout Cambodia as an arts center. His boss gave him a week off to rehearse before the marathon and donated to the fundraising effort linked to the live-streaming.

“His gift was a big motivation for artists,” Bo Ratha said of the donation from Reaksmey Construction Material. Mentioning the amount given would be considered impolite, so Bo Ratha declined.

In the marathon, Bo Ratha and his circus partner, Choub Kanha, performed five big segments. The opening one, Sor Kreas (Eclipse), started at 8 a.m. and lasted an hour.

One of their favorite vignettes is Same Same but Different, which is about foreign travelers visiting Cambodia. In it, Bo Ratha and Choub Kanha, playing a Western couple, encounter Cambodian villagers during a sudden downpour.

The Cambodians perform a fishing dance and by the time the rain ends, everyone feels connected.

“It is a beautiful and romantic scene,” Choub Kanha said.

Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)
Kampuchea Phare Circus. (Image provided)

The marathon performance, however, presented new challenges. Everything demanded focus -- applying makeup, changing costumes, entering and exiting the stage.

Choub Kanha worried about the troupe’s safety.

“We got very little rest. The performance was tough, and it is a 24-hour show marathon,” she told VOA Khmer via a phone call from Battambang province. “I was afraid we could not perform the difficult tricks well, or our artists would face dangers while performing.”

Khuon Det, co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak, told VOA Khmer, “We, as organizers, had to keep eyes on timing, transition of each scene, and the safety and well-being of our artists and team.”

Khuon Deth, co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak, said Phare had foreseen the obstacles and prepared the alternatives. Phare reserved the understudies for each skill and trick, arranged first-aid kits, a team of medical personnel was on standby in case of emergency or to assist the artists with muscle aches or ankle, wrist or other joint sprains.

Preparations included menu planning so snacks, water and places to nap would be available during the marathon.

“One chopstick is easily to be broken, while a bundle of chopsticks is not,” Bo Ratha said, comparing the collaborative spirit of the marathoners to a Cambodian proverb.

“We were so united altogether. One stage is done, we have to be ready to set another stage,” he said. “It’s five minutes. What else do you think we can do in five minutes behind the scenes, if without unity?”

Huot Dara, CEO of Phare Social Enterprise, said the Guinness requirements included having a 50-person audience throughout the marathon and paying the artists. Going for the record cost $15,000.

The marathon performance integrated new material with older crowd-pleasers for a succession of acrobatics, magic, dance, clowning, contortion, singing, puppetry, breakdancing, live painting, unicycling and fire acts, each accompanied by live performances of classical or contemporary Cambodian music.

Each act contained a chapter in a longer story reflecting Cambodian society, tradition and culture.

Throughout the performance, fans lined up by the hundreds, waiting for access.

“The audiences were queued in long rows, so we set up a white-cloth projection screen in an open field the Phare campus. They sat, keeping [social] distancing. Some breastfed their children and some shooed mosquitoes away to get their children to sleep as they watched our performance,” Bo Ratha said.

“When I see this, I do not know where my heart is hiding,” he added. “It was heart-melting.”

Ros Pheakdey strikes a pose for her Skyleros Fashion line on Facebook. (Courtesy of Ros Pheakdey)

Ros Pheakdey’s designs are now worn by Miss Universe Cambodia contestants and popular singer and songwriter Nikki Nikki.

Ros Pheakdey still remembers the first gown she made – a sheer, black dress – a design she had happened to see scrolling through her Instagram feed in 2013. She made use of materials she had in her home, and with her mother’s old sewing machine, Ros Pheakdey began to sew the dress – not realizing it was the start of her career in fashion.

Twenty-four hours later, Ros Pheakdey was looking at a loose, draping silhouette, a sense of accomplishment washing over her. From the small bedroom with a sewing machine, Ros Pheakdey’s designs are now worn by Miss Universe Cambodia contestants and popular singer and songwriter Suon Socheata, known by her stage name Nikki Nikki.

“Being recognized by people in the entertainment industry, it’s a validation for me to keep going because Skyleros as a brand is being accepted and recognized,” she said.

The 25-year-old designer, who identifies as gender fluid, now prefers to go by Skyler, even naming her fashion brand Skyleros Fashion. While Ros Pheakdey has achieved a lot of success in a short period, including being an inspiration for the LGBT+ community, the Phnom Penh resident reminisces about her early days.

Ros Pheakdey wears a short see-through cocktail dress to attend a friend's wedding in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Courtesy of Ros Pheakdey)
Ros Pheakdey wears a short see-through cocktail dress to attend a friend's wedding in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Courtesy of Ros Pheakdey)

Having always had a penchant for appreciating fabrics, Ros Pheakdey started designing costumes for her high-school dance troupe in 2015 and kept practicing sewing, mending small pieces of clothing, but with not much formal training

She trained herself by watching D-I-Y videos on YouTube, devouring fashion magazines, like Vogue, for inspiration and designing essentials, like shirts and denim, to improve her skills.

“I have to say it is not a proper place to study [fashion] because we can just repeat, but nobody can tell if you do it right or wrong, you don’t have guidance,” Ros Pheakdey said.

With little exposure to the fashion world and despite hesitancy over her lack of formal training, Ros Pheakdey launched Skyleros Fashion in 2015 at the age of 19, using friends for fashion shoots featuring her designs.

“I just know I love designing clothes, it was always nothing serious. But when all of my clothes were sold, that’s when my career took off,” Ros Pheakdey said.

With the help of family and friends, Ros Pheakdey has become a solid fixture in Cambodia’s fashion scene, and joins other successful members of the fashion industry, such as Kong Sothea, a finalist at the Runway Ready Designer in 2017; Sok Nan, a household name for Khmer contemporary fashion; and Marya Na owner of the fashion brand PRIVE.

Fashion model Prasath Davin wears an animal-print dress designed by Ros Pheakdey. (Courtesy of Ros Pheakdey)
Fashion model Prasath Davin wears an animal-print dress designed by Ros Pheakdey. (Courtesy of Ros Pheakdey)

Pov Sithan, another up-and-coming designer, said Ros Pheakdey was setting an example for the design community by being true to her design aesthetic, despite not having any formal training.

Additionally, her popularity and personality, Pov Sithan said, was helping increase acceptance among the general public and, in turn, opening up avenues for the LGBT+ community looking to get into the fashion and entertainment sector.

“I know a lot of people who know about her and she was very well-known in the media and open about her sexuality,” Pov Sithan said. “So, I think that helped us in a way because she opened up acceptance in the public eye for most of us."

Ros Pheakdey said that her informal training frees her from traditional design concepts, but also affects her understanding of the mechanics of an outfit or even how to run a fashion business. Friends have been critical to understanding the financial aspects of running a business, she said.

“At school, you are taught structure, business strategies, and teachers give you a lot of direction; you don’t have to scramble by yourself,” Ros Pheakdey said, “It takes me more time to make a piece of clothing.”

While the early days were a struggle – online and offline sales pitches mixed with designing large offerings of designs – Ros Pheakdey now plays to her strengths, accepting individual orders from prospective customers, limited to performance costumes and evening gowns.

Model Prasath Davin wears Ros Pheakdey's clothing line at a fashion shoot in Cambodia. (Courtesy of Ros Pheakdey)
Model Prasath Davin wears Ros Pheakdey's clothing line at a fashion shoot in Cambodia. (Courtesy of Ros Pheakdey)

The popular designer acknowledges that there was probably more acceptance of members from the LGBT+ in the fashion industry, though not always consistently.

“People are not always so open; they still hide their identities to [entertainment executives] who just want safe and straight people or at least straight presenting. This is due to brand considerations, the audience, and image,” Ros Pheakdey said.

She hoped her example would show members of the LGBT+ community that they can always turn to entrepreneurship to create jobs for themselves, however, acknowledging that it was not always an easy path.

“I think society will eventually accept us,” Ros Pheakdey said. “I never think about this when I work with other people - if you want to judge me, judge my work, not my gender.”