CHINESE BALANCING ACTS; ACROBATS’ METHODS INFLUENCING WESTERN TROUPES

Girls dance atop light bulbs in Cirque du Soleil. Circus performers dive through hoops. A lithe pole acrobat becomes part of a heist caper in director Steven Soderbergh’s remake of “Ocean’s Eleven.”

Chinese acrobatics have astounded audiences for 2,000 years, but it has only been in the last quarter-century that the West have begun to borrow their techniques and aesthetics.

And Bay Area audiences will get the opportunity to see those techniques in the next couple of weeks. The National Acrobats arrive in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall tomorrow for two days. In a nice bit of timing, the critically acclaimed Peking Acrobats make their visit Feb. 2 at the Marin Center.

The Taiwanese acrobats favor flashy spectacles, such as tumbling through rings of fire, while the Peking Acrobats adhere to more the traditional miracles of balancing nine women on a bicycle or stacking performers on a tenuous pagoda of chairs. Still, both bring a repertoire that has been refined for more than two millennia – and they appeal through the universal medium of the human form.

East in West

Peking Acrobats co-producer Don Hughes traces a burgeoning international interest in acrobatics to the 1970s. Then a Taiwanese troupe did so well opening for Liberace in the late 1980s that Siegfried and Roy – a little further down the Las Vegas strip – asked the troupe to sub for two weeks while the magicians went on vacation.

Around the same time, American circuses started hiring Chinese performers. Judy Finelli, co-founder of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, was so impressed by a visiting troupe in New York that she hired the artistic director.

But the most conspicuous melding of East and West has been Cirque du Soleil, the circus powerhouse based in Quebec, Canada. The organization has several traveling shows, as well as two productions – “Mystere” and “O” – with homes in Las Vegas strip hotels. The shows seamlessly meld the beautiful athletics of acrobatics, along with other amazing and feats of balance, strength and skills with stories built around fable-like, mystical and socially conscious themes.

“Cirque du Soleil, they have invited the whole world of acrobatics,” Chang says.

Lyn Heward, president and chief operating officer o Cirque du Soleil’s Creative Content Division, says its artistic director visited China in the circus’ early days.

” ‘Someday we would like to do a show where we bring the theatricality of the West to meet the age-old acrobatic tradition of China,’ ” Heward says of the thinking that ultimately resulted in the Cirque show “Dralion,” which made its Bay Area stop in 2000.

While the Far Eastern influence on Cirque du Soleil is by far the most apparent (and its Chinese staff the largest), other Asian acrobats had long been employed on its other shows. But the West didn’t just come courting. Political and economic changes pushed performers from the former Soviet Union and China to seek opportunities elsewhere. China alone has more than 100,000 acrobats.

The influx of such talent, Finelli says, has pushed Westerners to be more inventive. “It has made the quality of the American circus performer,” she says. And audiences began to expect more as well. “People were getting away with just kind of schlocky animal acts – but not anymore.”

Learning curve

The origins of acrobatics techniques are difficult to ascertain, but with a culture as old as China’s, some tricks considered Chinese may have traveled down the Silk Route. By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), though, the Chinese had classified various juggling, tumbling and magic acts as the Hundred Entertainments. The West adopted some, but to this day, they’re still playing catch up.

“The Chinese have a phenomenal hand balancing,” says Heward. “Another one that’s not done on a high level outside of China is hoop diving.” And graceful female contortionists have nudged their act from the freak show onto the main stage.

Naturally, such phenomenal skill and strength comes from training that begins at an early age, especially for those born into a family of acrobats. “At a year old, they’ve been thrown back and forth by their parents, like you’d throw your baby up in the air. They have no fear,” Hughes says.

Such dedication to the craft is possible when the Ministry of Culture takes care of its acrobats. “In China, (you train) eight hours a day, seven days, sometimes six days,” says Lu Yi, master trainer and artistic director for the San Francisco Circus School. His students, including his most advanced, practice for two hours, three days a week. “Put together, (the) time (is) not more than China, one day,” he says.

“There’s something very admirable about a culture that succeeds in protecting such a precious tool such as acrobatics for 2,000 years,” Heward observes.

That philosophy makes acrobatics a lifelong pursuit. Unlike the short-lived careers of, say, Western gymnasts or Olympic athletes, the Chinese acrobats can graduate from tumbling to juggling to coaching. Heward recalls one girl whose high-wire act required her to walk on a pole placed atop her partner’s shoulders. When the girl grew older, she switched to balancing a bicycle.

Close to the action

Perhaps Chinese acrobatics’ greatest influence is its accessibility. In contrast, the Western circus is about being the biggest show on earth. The spectacle – animal acts and all – impresses from a distance.

“Ringling Brothers is still three rings and no matter what you do, you’re going to be far away, whereas you are really much closer to the (Chinese) performers,” Finelli says.

While audiences benefit from the cozier settings, part of the emphasis on closer proximity is practical. Sponsor dollars are hard to come by for large traveling shows, and they can be logistical nightmares.

Mainly, though, the style remains faithful to its beginnings in everyday life experiences. Balancing dishes and chairs over whips and chariots emphasizes creating magic from the mundane.

Even as it seems to defy physical laws, Chinese acrobatics’ accessibility has translated well in the West. That means yet another route has opened between the two.

“I think we have a fascination quite apart from the acrobatics.” That, Heward says, is with “the culture of China.”

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at vchan@cctimes.com.

Event Preview

* National Acrobats of Taiwan, ROC. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft and Telegraph avenues, Berkeley, $20/$26/$32, 415-642-0212, 510-642-9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu.

* Peking Acrobats. 8 p.m. Feb. 2, Marin Center, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael, $16/$22/$28, 415-472-3500, www.ticketmaster.com

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