Flying High

Five years ago, Sok Dina and Nem Sopha were just teenagers when they boarded a plane for a faraway country whose language they did not speak, with almost no money in their pockets.

What they had was talent and the drive to excel, which is why the arts-training organization Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang City had helped them apply for spots at the best circus school in the world: the National Circus School in Montreal.

Nem Sopha in costume during a performance. (Joel Gershon)
Nem Sopha in costume during a performance. (Joel Gershon)

“These two youngsters stood out from the crowd because of their outstanding stage presence, their passion,” said Xavier Gobin, a French contemporary dancer who develops training programs for Phare. “Moreover, I had discerned in them a huge thirst for foreign lands and culture…in addition to being extremely communicative.”

But the transition to living in Canada was still not easy.

“When we arrived, we felt like a good cry,” said Mr. Dina, who was 16 at the time. “The first week, it was hell. The school and campus are quite vast, and I got lost. But after a month, it was fine.”

Besides classwork, the boys had to learn English and French—Montreal is mainly a French-speaking city—and get used to the food, said Mr. Sopha, who was 17 at the time. But the biggest shock was the cold weather, as the temperature in Montreal remains well below zero degrees for several months a year.

“It’s another way of life,” he said. “It was very difficult for us but we really tried to succeed.”

Today, Mr. Sopha, 22, and Mr. Dina, who will turn 21 next month, both speak French fluently, are studying English and have learned to ski. They are currently completing their last few weeks of coursework and will graduate next month with a National Circus School Studies Diploma, making them the first two Cambodians to have graduated from the school—or even attended.

“Very good students, they are now professional circus artists ready to conquer the biggest stages of the world,” said Christine Nget, the school’s spokeswoman.

Sok Dina, left, and Nem Sopha pose during a visit to Angkor Archeological Park last December. (Joel Gershon)
Sok Dina, left, and Nem Sopha pose during a visit to Angkor Archeological Park last December. (Joel Gershon)

They are already beginning to do so. Both young artists recently auditioned for the most prestigious circus company in the world, Cirque du Soleil. Selected among the approximately 600 candidates who apply each year, Mr. Dina was hired on a two-year contract that will begin in September, while Mr. Sopha is on the circus’ standby list to perform in an upcoming show.

Although there are currently 1,300 artists from some 60 countries in the company, Dina will be the first Cambodian to join Cirque du Soleil, according to Samuel Roy, a talent scout in the circus’ casting department.

“I’m sure he will bring a great deal to the show,” Mr. Roy said. “As for Sopha, we hope to have the opportunity to contact him for upcoming projects.”

Both have specialties—Mr. Sopha is an expert at balancing and hand-to-hand acts with partners, while Mr. Dina has perfected Chinese hoops and the tightrope walk—but they also are all-around artists who are skilled at many different aspects of circus performance, Mr. Roy said. “Dina and Sopha both have enormous talent and great stage presence,” he added.

For both young men, circus is a family business. They essentially grew up at Phare Ponleu Selpak, as both of their families live near the organization’s compound—Mr. Dina’s father is a mototaxi driver and Mr. Sopha’s is a tuk-tuk driver.

“I started studying circus at 9 years old through my brother Sok Pheak,” who is now a circus teacher at Phare, Mr. Dina said. His other brother is an actor in Phare’s theater company. As for Mr. Sopha, five of his 11 siblings are circus students and two are circus teachers and performers.

Over the past five years, both Mr. Dina and Mr. Sopha have worked in circus shows during the holidays, with their school’s approval. Mr. Sopha starred in a circus production at Canada’s biggest amusement park, Canada’s Wonderland, for two summers running, while Mr. Dina had a summer job in Toronto performing in the opening ceremony of the 2015 Pan American Games, which was produced by Cirque du Soleil.

Nem Sopha puts on stage makeup before a show. (Joel Gershon)
Nem Sopha puts on stage makeup before a show. (Joel Gershon)

Mr. Dina and Mr. Sopha have had to make do with very little during their time in Montreal. The scholarship they were given by the circus school only covered part of their tuition and boarding on campus. Private donors in Cambodia and France pitched in with additional funds, as did members of the Cambodian community in Montreal.

Joel Gershon, a U.S. television journalist and director based in Bangkok, has been following the progress of the two Cambodian artists as part of a film about Phare to be released next year, and has met the young men several times in Canada over the years.

“Their super-positive attitude is even more impressive when you think about how they have had to get by on such little money,” Mr. Gershon said.

“They almost never go out to eat, and while they have smartphones now, they just use them with WI-FI, without working phone numbers or data plans, because it would be too expensive otherwise.”

Unlike most other young people of their generation, Mr. Sopha and Mr. Dina don’t live glued to the internet. They only check their email on Sundays—if at all—and Mr. Dina’s YouTube profile and Mr. Sopha’s Facebook page are all about work, featuring clip after clip of them performing circus acts.

“I think they realize what an extraordinary situation they find themselves in, that they are truly living an impossible dream, they are making the most of the fortunate turn of event and that they are having fun,” Mr. Gershon said.

“It really is amazing how effortless it seems for them to excel, and they don’t seem to be struggling at all even though they have had a very difficult financial situation and isolated from the world they knew their entire lives.”

Over the next few months, Mr. Sopha will be working in the U.S. with a circus group from Montreal. And before starting his contract in September, Mr. Dina will be in a show in Montreal and then work with a company in Mexico.

“I can hardly believe it,’ Mr. Dina said of his new job at Cirque du Soleil. “When I was in Cambodia, I dreamt of one day spending my time on airplanes, studying abroad and being part of that circus. And now I’m in it… It’s really incredible.”

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