SIEM REAP, Cambodia: Balancing on her hands, a young contortionist throws her legs over her head and slowly draws back a bow with her toes, before loosing off an arrow into a balloon covered by a black shroud.
The balloon bursts and the audience erupts into applause in recognition of the artistry of the feat, but also at the symbolic puncturing of the terrors of the murderous Khmer Rouge era that eviscerated Cambodia in the late 1970s.
Pin Phunam, 23, who plays the title role in the circus show “Sokha”, says every movement aims to tell the story of a period of recent history she did not live through, but that hangs over her country.
An estimated two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979.
“People don’t talk about the Khmer Rouge, I don’t know why. Maybe it is too painful,” Phunam says before the show, which explores the country’s bloody past using a group of jugglers, acrobats and contortionists in the northwestern tourist town of Siem Reap.
On April 17 the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the triumphant march of communist soldiers into the Cambodian capital, ending a bloody civil war with a US-backed general.
But the date also signalled the start of a hardline rule that turned the nation into a workhouse where starvation, murder and overwork killed a quarter of the population.
While the performers from the circus troupe were born long after the regime fell, they have mesmerized audiences with their recreation of that period since first staging Sokha two years ago.
“Even though we don’t have any experience of the Khmer Rouge regime, we can tell the story through our artistic skills,” Phunam told AFP.
Instead, like many of the artists from the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School, she draws on difficult experiences of her own.
Phunam was born to a poor family in western Battambang province and spent her childhood scavenging for junk to sell.
“I had a drunken and violent father… I saw my father fighting with my mum every night after he came back from drinking and gambling with friends,” she said.
Then, when she was just seven, Phunam joined the nearby Phare Ponleu Selpak school run by former Cambodian refugees to help disadvantaged local youngsters through art.