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A Splendid adventure
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If you happen to be in Beijing during the Olympics, "Splendid" is one stage show you should not miss -- a must-see for foreign visitors and domestic audiences alike.

For those who usually yawn at acrobatic stunts - that is, people like me who grew up with endless images of hoop-jumping and ball-juggling as the only apolitical entertainment allowed -- I promise you that this is not your father's acrobatics any more.

"Splendid" bills itself as "the artistic conception acrobatics." I'll decipher that phrase for you: In the old days, Chinese acrobatics was all stunts and no art. Imagine a concert where every singer shoots for high Cs every three minutes. The proper sense of building for a dramatic climax would be quickly destroyed.

Chinese acrobatics has come a long way since then. The current show, produced by China National Acrobatic Troupe, is polished like a dance drama; it has as much production value (sound, lighting, etc) as any lavish theatrical extravaganza, and careful attention is paid to the show's artistic quality.

You can detect the influence of Cirque du Soleil. But this show does have a homegrown sensibility, especially apparent in the juxtaposition of opposites. The yin of plate spinning, umbrella and diabolo juggling, for instance, is a nice compliment to the yang of pole and hoop jumping.

The stage decor is abstractly Chinese. The opening of the show is very folksy, with lantern-like ornaments floating among the audience. It could be a scene from northeastern China's ritual of fun.

"Air jumping and catching" -- also known as "tales of chivalrousness" -- was a new treat for me. Dressed in mysterious white robes, which covered half their faces, the performers looked like ancient warriors who have just jumped off the pages of a martial arts novel. The trick involves throwing people around, somewhat like fancy gymnastics, without the aid of props. If photographed from ground level, the performers would surely resemble gravity-defying heroes in kungfu movies.

I believe that a live show loses its sense of spontaneity and dramatic tension somewhat if too perfectly orchestrated. An occasional failure can actually help to build suspense.

In this case, the segment that garnered the most enthusiastic reaction from the audience involved performers tumbling through hoops. When the "bar" was raised to eight hoops or 3.05 meters high, on the night I was there, it took the actor two tries to jump that astonishing height -- which swept the audience into a frenzy of thunderous bravos and applause.

Other acts involved less suspense. Balancing a pile of glasses on one's head would be one example. The glasses are so obviously glued together that, even when the actress tilts her head as if pouring water from the glasses, they steadfastly refuse to crash down, breaking the law of logic rather than the law of poetic license.

Truth be told, in terms of the level of difficulty, the show does not have many surprises. It is not technically more challenging than what we saw a generation ago. But it is certainly much more enjoyable, and even somewhat titillating. One act features two scantily clad young men swinging from two silk ropes, striking all kinds of dramatic poses in mid-air, while several girls sit watching in the background. The scene is so beautifully homoerotic that it redefines male bonding, just like a John Woo movie - what the heck, an Ang Lee movie, for that matter.

"What is a human body capable of?" I asked myself after watching this stunt-filled festivity. You may know what a gymnast can do, but you'll have to keep an open mind before catching this show. Call it the "Splendid human body."

"Splendid" plays at Poly Theater July 4 through August 31, except on Mondays.

(China Daily July 19, 2008)

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