Brian Salter's Blogs:
Turning somersaults in Tsinghua

 

It’s over a year ago that I last went to see a Chinese acrobatic show. I remembered it as being exciting, breath taking, and amazing that anyone could contort their bodies into such weird shapes that would surely bring tears to the eyes of any normal person…

The internal electronic mailbox in my office pops up with a new message from HR. There is to be another outing for its foreign staff to go see an acrobatic show given by the China National Acrobatic Troupe. Dutifully, I traipse along the corridor and go and collect my ticket…

… and find out it is to be held at Tsinghua University on the other side of town. Well, not right the other side of town, but a 20 minute subway journey to Wudaokou on line 13 and then another 20 minute hike. But I’d been to Tsinghua many months ago and had liked the campus then, so why not once more, I think to myself.

The Main Building, located in the eastern area of the campus, is composed of three sections and covers a total area of 76,871 square metres. Apparently it was jointly designed by the Tsinghua students and teachers from different departments after the “liberation” of China.

But this evening’s performance is not being held here. Instead it is taking place some 200 metres to the west in the new Mong Man Wai Concert Hall, which was designed by academician Li Daozeng and donated by an alumnus called … yes, you’ve guessed it … Mong Man Wai, the Chairman of HKR International Limited. It was built to celebrate Tsinghua University’s centenary celebration in 2011.

It’s a professional standard Concert Hall with all the normal facilities (whatever they are), according to the official blurb; and it is used for concerts, dramas, operas, ballets and other medium-sized performances, as well as various types of conferences.

I am reliably informed that it can hold 510 people and has a stage 12 metres wide and seven metres high.

But beautiful as it undoubtedly is, it appears no one has given much thought to the numbering of the chairs. Of if they did, then they did a pretty lousy job. For a start, all the even numbered chairs are on the east side and the odd numbered chairs are on the west. So seat 35 is between 33 and 37, whilst 34 and 36 are way over the other side. No matter. Even your favourite blogger can work out that little conundrum standing on his head!

Problem is in finding your seat – firstly because they have put the seat numbers at such a height and in such dim colours that everyone (not just me) peers at the numbers on the row in front to try to ascertain where they should sit. And then they do a double take because someone is already sitting in their chair! It’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears all over again, LOL! Only then do they finally realise that the seat numbers are not lined up row in front of row; and eventually it dawns on them that instead of looking at the numbers in front they should lean over and look at the numbers behind the chairs they are standing in front of. I mean… dughhhhh!!!!!

I am comfortably settled into my seat when a number of colleagues from the office arrive and stake out their positions. Everyone is clutching a programme in their hot and stickies, and it appears I missed out, being one of the first to arrive. But Bruno and his GF have each purloined a copy for themselves and so in the great order of things, I purloin one of theirs in turn!

It turns out that this performance goes under the name of “The Dream of Golden Clown”. According to the programme, Narrated in the traditional western way, "The Dream of Golden Clown" tells a succinct and moving story about a contemporary young acrobat who trains tenaciously and ultimately achieves the "Golden Clown" award, making his dream come true. The new interpretation of contemporary Chinese acrobatics from a western perspective demonstrates the pioneering spirit of Chinese acrobats and the profound cultural connotation of human fortitude and enterprise. Well that sounds pretty jolly!

The programme even invites us to go to their official web site for more information; but alas – it appears that it is behind schedule and lamely invites us to go back to try again in the near future.

Before the show begins, there is the obligatory speech that has to be made – this one from some official at SAFEA … the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs, which is hosting tonight’s performance. Apparently we are celebrating Labour Day (which actually isn’t for another 10 days, but what the hell…). Everyone continues chatting away as the said official does his duty; and then silence falls – or what passes for silence in a Chinese audience.

We are reminded yet again that unofficial photography is not allowed and the lights dim as the first of the six scenes unfolds. A vista of mobile phone screens lights up the auditorium as the audience happily snaps away. But in common with many Chinese theatres, the usherettes shine laser pointers at each of the recalcitrant happy shooters, in an attempt to name and shame, and the phone screens dim one by one.

Truth to tell, your favourite blogger is one of those named and shamed, until Bruno points out that you can put something in front of the iPhone screen to cover it totally and simply press the volume button on the side to snap away with impunity. He, however, has brought his Nikon D800 with him, and has switched off the screen, allowing him to snap away to his heart’s content. As my iPhone automatically sets itself to 1/15 sec while Bruno’s Nikon can grab the action at 1/200 sec, I am not too proud to beg for a few shots from him for the benefit of you, my dear blogfans!

To start off with, there are the usual juggling acts with some guy throwing his balls in the air or bouncing them on the floor (no comments please!); and on this occasion he only drops one or two on no more than five occasions. Well, I guess if I was bouncing a dozen balls onto the floor I might drop a few too.

I’m afraid juggling leaves me rather cold. I’m sure it is ever so clever, but when you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it all. I mean, can you imagine devoting your life to throwing things in the air and catching them again? I wonder what this guy talks about to his wife when they are snuggled up watching CCTV together in the evenings. Did you have a nice day at work dear? Yes. I managed to throw 12 balls in the air and only dropped three. Hmmm.

There are also girls contorting themselves into the most amazing positions which almost bring tears to the eyes. How can bodies be that supple and elasticated? Is this the ultimate advert for tantric sex? Or will they all suffer crippling arthritis in the future?

And of course there are guys diving over and under and through hoops which are spinning round slowly; and only one guy misses a particularly difficult trajectory; but no one seems to mind, and he gets a special round of applause for being such a plucky fellow!

Then there are the girls with diabolos. I am indebted to the web site oddballs.co.uk which tells me that the diabolo was invented by the Chinese for catching birds, as they can be thrown very high. In this performance they have lights inside their giant yoyos as the stage lights are dimmed, creating an eerie effect.

Of course, a Chinese acrobatic performance wouldn’t be the same without some clever smart-arse placing one little stick on top of another and doing handstands and headstands on it, before adding yet another little stick and doing it all again. And then another… and another … <yawn> <yawn>

Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end and, with a few more jumps and contortions and other acts of daring-do, the lights come up for the final curtain. For some reason the girls are now dressed up as flowers but that doesn’t detract from the overall spirit of the performance. Why, even the laser-usherettes are now snapping away with their mobile phones!

The performance is over. Everyone streams out into the cool night air. It’s been a pleasant evening, even if it wasn’t that earth shattering – for me at any rate. That’s the problem, I guess, of turning into a cynical old bastard. Once you’ve been there, seen it all, and got the proverbial t-shirt, you’re always on the look out for something just that little bit different. I wonder if that’s how we all end up. Is that what old age is going to be like? Well, I guess I have maybe a few more years yet to find out….