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The Peking Acrobats

The Body as Theater

by Jeff Kuo

January 24, 2004 -- The Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, California State University, Long Beach, California

To Chinese melodies and the yells of authentic sounding martial slogans, the Peking Acrobats opened unpromisingly. The men's costumes looked like last year's martial arts club cast offs and the women were sporting what looked like Cultural Revolution era bobs and costumed in moderately hideous faux-tights w/ inexplicable faux fur wraps and demi-capes. But soon matters improved as the men got busy breaking stacks of bricks with their heads; or, in turn having bricks smashed to dust on their heads with a sledgehammer. And, for each of the pleasing scenes of smashing and breaking, there was an equally pleasing artistic balance of the girls busy not breaking things to smithereens as they twirled vases and balanced bowls in a variety of boneless poses.

One of my favorite sections was "Foot Juggling" where three young women lay on specially prepared benches and juggled suitcase sized porcelain vases on their feet. They rolled the vases on their long axes, then their short axes. Then they twirled them around before tossing them from girl to girl. Soon, the vases were gone, replaced by wooden tables. One must be a really bad mood not to at least smile a little at the sight of tables being foot juggled between three girls in pink pajamas.

But the Peking Acrobats didn't just show superhuman feats of virtuoso balance and coordination. In their aesthetic, the human body is itself a kind of theater. In a feat of mind over matter, two men place a spear with a blade at each end between them with the spear tips against their windpipes. Straining mightily, they press their necks against the spear tips with such tension that the spear bends from the force. Another man wraps an iron rod the thickness of my finger around his neck. Then unwinds it.

The women are not to be outdone. In "Contortionist," lithe, young women balancing on their hands curl themselves so far backwards as to be able to touch the top of their heads with the soles of their feet. They stack themselves up one girl atop another, each curled backwards so their shins frame their faces. Pardon me for seeing too much in their choreography but I thought I could detect a vaguely Sapphic subtext to some of their group assemblies.

Though the theater of the Peking Acrobats is essentially closer to sports than to dance, there is a theatricality that is unmistakable. It is in fact perhaps theater stripped to its most basic form: the choreographic equivalent of repetition, addition, and accumulation of smaller units into larger ones. In "Bowl Balancing," for instance, the girl begins with a single wine glass perched on her nose. She soon adds a platform and 4 more wine glasses. Then another platform and 4 candles ... then more glasses, and... when you thought she must be done, another platform and now 8 more candles … and so forth. In sports, physical accomplishment emphasizes efficiency and quantity -- results rather than form. But Bowl Balancing Girl didn't just straight off balance about crate's worth of candles on her nose, she built up to it and made the audience hold its collective breath each time she added to the stack of breakables on her nose.

In "Pagoda of Chairs," a man places a chair atop 4 champagne bottles. He stacks another chair on top, then another. And, another ... and another. 5 chairs later and about 30 feet off the ground, the audience is gasping for breath as he balances upside down on his hands, his feet just about touching the top of the proscenium. Just counting the bowls and chairs of Bowl Balancing Girl and Pagoda Chair Guy doesn't quite convey the breath holding experience. As one of my audience neighbors quipped -- it's something like watching the Indy 500, waiting for a car wreck.

In the 21st century world where young Asians seem to be increasingly drawn to rap music and import car culture, there is something oddly reassuring about the quaint theatricality of the Peking Acrobats. Is it the oddly grating quality of the traditional Chinese music accompaniment? Or, the strict segregation of acts by gender (the women alternate appearances with the men -- rarely do both sexes appear together), or the hopelessly anachronistic costumes?

Or, is there perhaps something reassuringly reminiscent of minstrelsy? One would have to be acquainted with the history of the Chinese circus to make even a simple guess, but I can't help wonder what prompted the development of these prodigies of the body with its mastery of the materiel of the proletariat -- its balancing of bowls, plates, chairs, and each other -- rather than the more exalted materials such as aristocratic carbon steel swords, silk ribbons, or genteel ivory or jade, etc.  What about the mastery of the more elevated environs such as the European trapeze artist and wire walker's conquest of the air. In North America, minstrelsy was entertainment that propagated the myth of the lazy, guileful, happy Negro (Mr. Bones, Mr. Tambo, etc). If the Chinese circus was court entertainment, what sort of myth about the Chinese third estate did it propagate?

Unfortunately, the Program Notes did not name the performers individually. It did list Company Director as Mr. Ken Hai, Group Leader as Mr. Peng L. Jie, Technical Consultant as Ms. Li Ying, Stage Manager as Mr. Chu Chin, and Orchestra Director as Mr. Huang Li Jian.

Edited by Editor.

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