It pays to have connections. I had nothing planned for Sunday night until I was asked if I would like to go see some Chinese acrobatics. The DRC – the body that runs the Diplomatic compounds around Beijing – had put out a general invitation to the diplomatic community to enjoy an evening of Chinese culture. As the seats were on a first-come-first-served basis and as I certainly looked foreign it would be easy enough for me to get in with no difficulty.
The brochure looked tempting enough. “The national acrobatic troupe with 60 years’ accumulation of acrobatic arts, which has owned 45 gold medles in 57 years of wining awards, will inherit traditional acrobatic arts with more than 3000 years history, promot the quintessence of nation’s art, show the top acrobatics in the world”, it enticingly explained.
The venue for this grand gala was to be the Beijing Dongtu Theater; but try as I might I could find no mention on the internet of how to find this place. Another look at the brochure, however, showed a fuzzy picture of the Dongcheng District Library underneath some red and yellow writing praising the agility, balance and strength of the performers; so I decided that this was where I should be heading.
The library was easy to find – just 150 metres from Beixinqiao subway station on line 5, too, which made life a lot easier. And sure enough there were a number of Westerners wandering in through the front portals of this drab building.
Using a technique I had perfected when I was in Saudi Arabia, I stuck in close to a number of families and when asked if I had remembered to bring my invitation with me I just told the doorman that I was “with them”, pointing in the general direction of about a dozen people ahead of me.
Now, having been to a couple of other theatres in Beijing where they take away your camera and even your bottle of water, I was surprised to see that here they practically insisted on not only giving you a bottle of water, but also chocolate biscuits and an Orion Pie - a kind of chocolatey-marshmallow-waggon-wheel type of biscuit. (Mind you they did later say no photography was allowed.)
Loaded down with my goodies, I quickly found an aisle seat, for it is a well known fact that Chinese theatres are not generous when it comes to the leg room department.
Well, they say there is no such thing as a free lunch – or even a free Orion Pie for that matter – so I was hardly surprised when we had to sit through a 10 minute presentation on how wonderful the DRC was and about their plans for the future. Interestingly, the presentation was in both English and Japanese, which must say something about the influence that the Japanese have in diplomatic circles.
Next up we were asked to give a big round of applause for the assembled dignitaries. I have to say that the Ambassador for East Timor looked especially fetching in her duffle coat; while the Ambassador of Bahrain looked from her figure as though she was already an ardent connoisseur of Orion Pies.
And then we were ready to begin.
Chinese acrobatics is said to have started during the Warring States Period two thousand years ago, though some claim it is four thousand years old on the basis of the mythical Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, having started a martial form of acrobatics at a victory celebration in Wuqiao some 300 km south of Beijing.
Acrobatics became refined during the Han Dynasty (221 BC-220 AD) by which time juggling, fire eating, knife swallowing and tight rope walking were regular features. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), acrobatics received royal patronage with shows performed for the imperial court and soon spread to the gentry. But eventually, the performance arts lost favour in the Imperial court and most acrobats performed in the street.
During the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it regained popularity with the Imperial Court and after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the art form gained further respectability. Following the policy of "Let a hundred flowers blossom and weed through the old to bring forth the new," there was a spectacular renaissance of the old acrobatic theatre. Troupes were created in each province and major city, and many were given their own theatres. The teaching was (and still is) done within the troupe, old performers training the new generation.
Nowadays more than 10,000 people are involved in the acrobatics industry across China. Children begin their training as young as four or five, spending the first two years learning the basic skills such as dancing and tumbling, before moving on to specialised roles.
So it was not surprising that in the first act there were four young girls, who can’t have been more than about 10 or 12 years old, being thrown bodily between muscle-bound guys, who at the same time performed human towers and other acts of daring-do.
These girls were so flexible that they could bend and fold their bodies to a position where their feet clasped their face while wrapping other parts of their anatomy around bits that were never designed to be seen in that way.
The tempo, however, went decidedly downbeat after that when we had five minutes of some guy juggling. The problem is that everyone has seen this a thousand times over, so clever as it undoubtedly was, everyone was waiting for him to stop playing with his balls and make way for the next act – a collection of girls, wearing silly hats with feathers, who used ropes to throw diabolos high into the air while turning cartwheels and generally throwing themselves around before the diabolos followed Newton’s law and were expertly caught by the girls, who would also juggle them between themselves and do other amazing things that you never imagined you could do with a diabolo. (Maybe I have led a protected life up until now!)
(BTW the secret of doing somersaults with a silly feather sticking out from the top of your head is to grab the feather in your mouth before you do the roll and then open your mouth as you land to accentuate the overall effect as the feather springs back into place!)
Next up was a group of girls who had perfected lying on their backs with their legs spread apart down to a fine art. They were bouncing umbrellas from their feet, turning them over and catching them with their toes and then throwing them to one another again from their feet. I’m sure it was awfully clever, but after they had done a number of variations of the same thing it was time to move on to something a bit more exciting.
Hoop diving - originally known as "Swallow Play" because the performers are supposed to imitate the movements of swallows as they jump through narrow rings piled upon one another – was next. The Chinese call it "Dashing Through Narrows" which just about sums up what it is all about. Dead clever stuff. You certainly would never see me bouncing off a springboard, doing a couple of mid-air somersaults and going feet-first through a bamboo ring. But then, I suppose, each one to his own….
Chinese acrobatics took a nose dive during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); but it bounced back pretty soon afterwards as the government replaced the bureaucrats who were heading the troupes with senior leading acrobats, thus further encouraging their artistic development. When China eventually began to open up to the West in the 1980s, the acrobatic art form was packaged as a complete theme show.
Naturally, no acrobatic show would be complete without someone walking along a tightrope. Except the rope on this occasion wasn’t tight, and it was more like a ribbon, but then who is quibbling? Rolling backwards and forwards on a monocycle was of course de rigueur as was doing a backwards somersault onto the ‘wire’.
But it’s a fine thing when everyone becomes so blasé, having seen it all before, that they get impatient for something a little different.
The next act seemed like a good way of reducing the traffic on Beijing’s streets. The group bicycling act went down a real treat with ten girls cycling round the stage doing things that would have surely made the bikes’ manufacturers cringe.
Cycling acrobatics were imported to China in the nineteenth century, but the Chinese have made it a specialty of their own. The most spectacular figure in a Chinese bicycle act is of course the "peacock" finale in which a large group of acrobats riding a single bicycle organize themselves in a tableau representing a peacock fanning its feathers. So eventually all ten girls ended up on one bicycle, as we just knew they would; but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment as they tottered around the stage until the bike finally ran out of steam.
It appears that anyone can learn the art of acrobatics, given enough will and determination, if they apply to the Beijing International Art School, formerly known as the Beijing Acrobatic School - the largest secondary art school in China teaching circus arts, martial arts, dances and arts of other categories.
The acrobatic courses focus on such skills as flexibility, tumbling and handstanding, following which students learn to master advanced skills such as controlling their bodies, aerial techniques, tightrope walking, hoops, cycling, bowl/cup balancing, poles, equilibrium, contortion, pyramids ... in fact just about anything you can find in a modern circus. Most acrobats practise Qi gong, the Chinese breathing and mental art which helps focus attention, and the body and mind to work in harmony, or so they claim.
Graduates of the school have won over 20 ‘golds’ from international circus festivals, and have performed in over 50 countries. Many students from the Americas and Europe have graduated from the School and became professional performers.
Not that you would ever catch me even thinking of subjecting myself to such torture! For starters, the Acrobatic Major has six days of study every week, including four days of speciality training and two days of academic study. You start each day at 6.30 doing an hour of exercises. Classes are from 8:30am - 12pm, and 2:30pm - 5pm, and again from 6:30pm - 8:30pm. And all for a mere US$5,000 a year. OMG! The Chinese surely put masochism into a league of its own!
Suddenly the whole show was over bar the shouting. It had lasted just an hour in total and it was clear that the performers – as they made their way back out onto the stage – were pretty well knackered. One would have felt quite a heel demanding an encore.
Instead, depending on nationality, the audience made a rapid bee-line towards the exit as the performers carried on waving to a fast emptying hall. The Americans led the charge, followed by the German contingent, while the rest of us carried on with the applause since there was no possible danger of missing the last train.
It seems a tough way of making a living, but as they say, I suppose someone has to do it. One thing’s for sure, though; I’ll never again complain about the physical demands of my job, or the hours worked… until perhaps the next time that is!