After decades of innovation and experiment, acrobatics shows have evolved into gala performances that blend music and dance with modern stage lighting and design.
During the Ninth China Wuqiao International Circus Festival, spectators saw more than the mere stunts and skills and magic.
Acrobatics is no longer merely a show of audacity, nor of tricks that ordinary people would not even dream of doing.
"From the festival, we can see all acrobatic skills are performed in great harmony to musical accompaniment," said Bian Faji, deputy director of the China Acrobatics Society and chairman of the judging committee of the Wuqiao festival.
The hand juggling shows are good examples.
A male juggler from Timo Circus Troupe of Germany adjusts the rhythm of his acts perfectly to the tune of the Turkey March.
A young woman from Fire Bird Productions Inc of the United States follows every single note of the accompanying music with the movements of the fan in her hands.
"She is so great. It seems that I am looking at a musical fountain," said Li Xining, director of the Flag Circus of China and festival judge.
Beatifully choreographed, those performances reflect the "New Circus Movement" the world has witnessed throughout the last two decades.
Dirk Kuik, editor of Planet Circus in Germany, said: "Directors sometimes add a storyline to the show or create characters to make the show more interesting."
The Chinese have quickly caught up with international trends.
The program of "The Net Sling -- Chasing the Moon," choreographed and directed by Li Xining of the Flag Circus of China from Chengdu of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, is an example.
The show tells the story of girls of the Dai ethnic group who take a boat on the Ruili River to chase the reflection of the golden moon during the mid-autumn festival.
The show evolves from the traditional silk sling but uses three nets made of flax ropes instead. Round bamboo chairs resembling the moon sometimes hang from the acrobats' legs, sometimes roll on their bodies.
In the program, Li tries to explore something aesthetic, which was once a taboo in Chinese acrobatic circles.
"When it was first staged, many senior acrobats said it was nothing but dance or rhythmic gymnastics, but by no means acrobatics," she said.
However, her bold try succeeded and won her several awards at home and abroad. "Innovative features are the life of acrobatics, but do not necessarily mean how difficult and complex the acts will become," Li said. "The nerve-wracking stunts can only keep the audience gasping for air, and they may not retain any other impressions. Meanwhile, the acrobats have to suffer a lot in the process of training to improve their skills," Li said.
In this festival, acrobatics experts praised the new net sling.
"The program deeply touches my heart and well reflects the Eastern beauty, though the acts in the program are not quite difficult," said Lu Yu, artistic director of the San Francisco Circus Centre.
Lu said that while the stunts are an instant stimulus to the audiences' eyes, the beauty of the program lingers on.
"The traditional acrobatic programs need to add some beautiful elements," he said.
Judge Eduardo Murillo, from the United States, said: "Those who have added proper music, choreography and perhaps a theme, have a better possibility of a successful tour, artistically and economically."
While experts have grown used to Chinese acrobats using more complicated stunts in every new show, new features such as creative choreography are also a focal point.
"What arouses larger interest is that Chinese performers, who replace their traditional music as accompanying music with Spanish or Latin-American music, naturally change their acts and costumes," said Mustislav Zapashny, a jury member from Russia.
Li now cares more about how to add some fashionable colour to the traditional acrobatic shows and present them in new forms of stage art.
Li is considering some type of game in the acrobatic performance, which she believes will help the acrobats' mental and physical health.
"Most of them are still teens. I hope that they can enjoy the acrobatics, but not feel fearful of it.
For the audience, it can feel the beauty instead of cruelty out of the performance," she said.
Acrobats from home and abroad generally believe that combining acrobatics and other kinds of stage art is innovative.
"Some old Chinese acrobatic artists fear that the introduction of other arts into acrobatics will reduce the core skills of the acrobatics tradition, but any innovations in the process should not be blindly considered to be right or wrong," said Bian Faji. "We can only judge whether such an integration is good or not by the reaction of the audience."
(China Daily November 12, 2003)