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Peking Acrobats

Defying Physics

by Toba Singer

January 17, 2004 -- Marin Civic Center, San Rafael, California

Opening to the music of traditional Chinese instruments and a keyboard, the Peking Acrobats, successor to the 1920s Great China Circus, offers a spectacular array of its post-revolutionary accomplishments.

Working without harnesses or safety equipment, the young acrobats rely on the laws of physics, teamwork, rigorous training and scrupulous timing to present truly breathtaking (come armed with an oxygen canister) feats. Traditionally, Chinese acrobatics flourished as a folk art that made use of easily accessible household objects such as chairs, tables, bicycles, candles, bowls, knives, swords, and rope. Today’s aerialists use all of these, beginning with parallel ropes, from which they jump one to the other horizontally and head first, or which they loop around their limbs, scaling them, then descending in a swoosh, head first, landing effortlessly on cats’ feet. A single performer will successively mount six candelabras on upturned soles, forearms, her head or neck, and contort her body in order to move in four directions while flames dance from several ports in each candelabra. Perhaps most astounding is the chair balancing “stunt” (though one hesitates to use such a prejorative term—as there are no apparent sleights of hand involved): An aerialist successively mounts chairs balanced one on top of the other, supported by a single bottle, until he attains a height where the top half of his head hides just beneath the valance at the very tippy top of the curtain. There was a time in my life when I climbed chemical tanks for a living, and I admit that while watching the aerialist I had to (somewhat) avert my eyes when he reached the uppermost chairs, and, gulp, looked down and then up, and then smiled confidently, whilst MY stomach churned.

Unlike other circuses that aim to bewitch their audiences with the ubiquitously occult “magical,” this troupe presents the very best kind of conscious tribute to the wonders of the noumenal world and its ineluctable laws of physics. Multiple bridge-style tables are balanced on a single table foot. Pyramids of four young women support their weight on one performer’s neck, while balancing many more candelabras than their number.

It is not that this troupe eschews the acquisitions of pre-revolutionary and feudal Chinese culture: not at all. Included in the program are marshal arts demonstrations based on t’ai ch’i chu’an and kung fu, with forms and swordplay executed at lightning speed, and fiery displays of footwork and forged body strength.

The performers clown a bit with the audience, launching eggs its way, and balloons, soccer balls or heavier objects that make their mark, if safe, and just miss their mark, if potentially lethal.

Dance is also part of the repertoire, with arabesques en l’aire supporting a half-dozen bowls or other fancier dining room ordnance. Having seen many lion dances since relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area, there is none that compares with the Peking Acrobats’. A lion family of three takes the stage. Mama lion gives birth to a cub, who then beguilingly paws his mother and himself. The choreography, costumes, and concept have nothing in common with the gratuitously frightening, though often half-hearted and routine, amateur versions I have seen here.

The finale opens with the women draped in white, carrying stiff-stemmed, white lily pads (or are they paperwhites?), as they move through a series of delicate dance steps, a kind of cool-down number that balances everyone’s qi with plenty of warmth.

Don’t pass through life without seeing the Peking Acrobats at least once, and take kids with you to let them see that having and acting upon great expectations, working as a team, putting one’s best foot forward for the pleasure of others, is still met with great appreciation, and can tender tremendous satisfaction. Besides, it’s WAY more fun than pointing and clicking.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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