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New Spin on Old Tricks
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Members of the China National Acrobatic Troupe were throwing themselves into rehearsals this week even though many may have been feeling jet lagged after their long international flights home.

The world's best acrobats had returned to their motherland and were preparing for the upcoming series of shows during the Spring Festival season in Tiandi Theater.

It is rare to see so many Chinese acrobatic stars together because for most of the year they are scattered across the world delighting audience with their breathtaking feats.

Now they're back in Beijing bringing the traditional Chinese acrobatic classic tricks they used to thrill foreign audiences. There are contortionists, plate spinners, wirewalkers, hoop divers, diabolo players, vase balancers, ball jugglers and bicycle riders. "The whole performance will be filled with a jolly holiday atmosphere," said Lei Mingxia, acting director of The Return of The Spirit.

Fan Mengdie, 18, was rehearsing her plate-spinning routine with five other girls. As one of the most traditional Chinese acrobatic program still maintained by the modern Chinese circus, plate spinning can best illustrate the grace and beauty of female performers.

The performer uses both hands to hold six sticks, each spinning a plate. Two girls stand on their hands and headstand on the body of a third player.

Fan came back from Turkey two days ago, after a 15-day tour. She performed at least once in a day. Fan had already joined the tour at the age of 8, and has spent the past 10 years touring the world. Her specialities are plate spinning, contortion (the art of bending her body to make shapes) and trick cycle riding. She says foreign audiences are thrilled to see acrobatic shows with distinct Chinese features.

She says Chinese acrobatics place more emphasis on skills and stunts while foreign acrobatics pay more attention to theatrical movement. Chinese acrobats were now adopting these new skills.

Song Bo, 24, is one of the students of foreign acrobatics. Three years ago, he started to learn a foreign style of diabolo playing when he was performing pole climbing routines for the Circus of the Sun in Canada, one of the most famous circuses in the world.

For the first time he will show Chinese audiences his distinctively different way of playing the yo-yo like toy.

A foreign diabolo is made of rubber while traditional Chinese diabolo is made of bamboo. Cut into the ends of the bamboo toy are tiny holes, which create pipe-like sound.

"The first time I saw foreign diabolo performance, I was totally taken with it," he said.

Chinese diabolo players toss the device high in the air, spin a few somersaults, and then are ready catch it again. Song now plays the toy with smooth, flexible and dazzling small movements all around his body.

The method combines elements of hand juggling and is particularly popular with Canadian students, according to Song. New acrobatic techniques may be helpful for Chinese performers.

Though Chinese acrobatics boasts of a history of nearly 2,000 years, its local appeal is in decline, according to most acrobats.

Focusing mainly on the breathtaking stunts and neglecting the innovation with modern stage elements, traditional Chinese acrobatic shows are in an awkward situation in the domestic market, even though they keep winning many awards in the international competitions.

Chinese acrobatics are more popular overseas then at home, according to Fan. For example, in Turkey, more seats had to be added to a large theatre, which already accommodated an audience of few thousand.

When Fan was in South Korea, she gave more than 600 acrobatics shows in a year. Even in China, most acrobatic shows' audiences are foreigners.

What impressed Fan the most was the warmth of foreign audience. "Their applauses are frequent and loud. It is also feeling good each time we take a curtain call all the audience would stand up to applaud to us. The atmosphere spurs the actors to give their best performance," she said.

According to Lei Mingxia, the impression of Chinese with acrobatics still remains at the old image of street juggling and they know little about its most recent development.

Nowadays, difficult skills alone would not attract today's audience any more as most international circus is turning acrobatic shows into gala performances that involve music, dance, elaborate costumes, modern stage lighting and design.

In fact, many foreign circuses simply contracted with some Chinese acrobatic troupes, who charged money for the players and programs it provided, and then reproduced them with the incorporation of those modern stage elements. Their touring shows had a great success around the world.

Circus of the Sun is just such a good example. Its acrobatic shows have the best music, dance, and stage design in the world and contain high artistic value, according to Song Bo.

In 2003, he was sent to the circus by China National Acrobatic Troupe as a contracted player to perform pole climbing. He stayed there for three years.

What left him with a deep impression was that each acrobat should play a role in the whole performance, which tried to convey an idea or a feeling to the audience.

During recent years, the Chinese acrobatics have quickly caught up with such an international trends.

"Now when I am arranging movements, I try to make it look more like a stage art and avoid unnatural stunts," said Lei.

(China Daily February 15, 2007)

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