Sydney Festival: White Gold

Jackie McMillan
10th Jan 2024

Despite the glitzy name, White Gold skips over spangles and takes circus back to its roots: a band of travelling troubadours who can fit their whole show on the back of an ox cart. Performed by Phare, The Cambodian Circus, this Sydney Festival show feels positively pre-modern. The “white gold” in question is rice: Cambodia’s major crop, staple food, and most significant export. Watching white grains pour like liquid gold across the stage and onto the acrobats who view it as a rare metal is a large part of the pleasure you derive from this heart-felt performance. It’s more than making a mess though, through the rice, the show centralises traditional Buddhist values like kindness, teaching the young performers to eschew consumerist ideas like greed, competition and hoarding. This underlying message is not surprising when you consider that Phare is one part of a social enterprise founded by refugees to provide free education, including vocational circus skills, and decent wages that allow young people to climb out of poverty. 

None of this is heavy-handed. From painter Sereysokun Heng’s opening construction of an eight-point mandala on the floor using grains of white rice, to Chantha Norg’s tinkling xylophone emanating from the on-stage ensemble of three musicians, this show communicates Cambodian culture and Buddhist values gently with bows and smiles. The lack of technology doesn’t make the tricks any less impressive. Tida Kong takes rola bola (balancing board) to the next level with five cylinders of PVC pipe stacked in alternating directions. Later in a hand-balancing number, he cuts impressive gravity-defying shapes in the air, hovering meters from the stage. There’s also a number of great teeterboard tricks that see the whole ensemble take to the stage with their collective action directed by Bontheoun Houn. Including both traditional costumes (Dari Tha) and ancient art, White Gold is a family-friendly introduction to Cambodian culture through the accessible vehicle of circus. And for those, like myself, who winced at the idea of acrobats landing tricks on a slippery bed of rice grains, by the end of this show white rice engulfing every inch of the stage feels absolutely normal. They sure breed ‘em tough in Siem Reap. 

White Gold runs at the Seymour Centre until 21 January. The show is 60 minutes long. Tickets start at $39.