Peking Acrobats: It’s in the Spirit

The New York Times




IN China, children as young as 5 with acrobatic promise are recruited to train at special schools, where they follow a rigorous program of contortion, hand balancing, object manipulation, martial arts and character dance. Some of those children grow up to perform with the Peking Acrobats, Chinas elite troupe of gymnasts, jugglers, cyclists and tumblers.

The skills have been so admired in the western world that modern-day troupes like Montreals Cirque du Soleil, San Franciscos New Pickle Circus, New Yorks Big Apple Circus and Australias Circus Oz have borrowed from the techniques. Many have had Chinese acrobats on staff.

Since 1952, the Peking Acrobats have produced a fast-paced showcase of skill and unmistakable style. The 30-member troupe is made up equally of men and women, including 21 acrobats (age 12 and up) as well as musicians, led by Liu Yen. Ken Hai (or Hai Ken Tsai, as he is known in China) serves as artistic director.

In China, the name Hai is synonymous with great acrobatics,‘ said Don Hughes, who has been co-producing acrobatic shows with Mr. Hai for 27 years. Mr. Hai, a fourth-generation performer of the Hai family, also designs the special silky costumes for the troupe; some of his protégés are working on the remake of the feature film Oceans 11.

In the Peking Acrobats’ visit to New Jersey before a three-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York, look to see elegant choreography, lively energy and a concentration that borders on the sacred. While each performance is an individually crafted effort of will, with the program tailored to fit the performers carefully honed specialty, it is the historic and mythological connections that give this progression of acts their depth and dramatic effect.

The Peking Acrobats are not to be confused with the Peking Opera, although some of the same physical skills are used in both forms. In Chinese Opera, a highly conventionalized form of theater, the emphasis is on Confucian ethics and morality. Although they frequently performed for Chinese royalty, the acrobatic troupes are more grassroots in nature. While the musical drama of the Chinese Opera began in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the Peking Acrobats can trace

their origins to the Ch’in (Qin) Dynasty (225-207 B.C.).

During the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi there was a long and hard struggle to build walls, waterways and canals. Acrobatics evolved as a folk art, and Asian artwork includes images of contortionists and street performers.

The present troupe of Peking Acrobats began as an outgrowth of the Great China Circus, which achieved great popularity in the 1920s. The company then became an integrated professional acrobatic touring organization in 1958. The group leader is Cheng De Ping and lighting is designed by Rusty Strauss.

There is no singing or dialogue. Folk arts rooted in daily life form the basis of the entertainment. In the Lion Dance several performers inhabit a fleecy lion costume that quivers with life. The Lion Dance has Buddhist origins: the lion was believed to be a reincarnation of a woman who could be teased into revealing its true identity and granting protection from bad luck.

Look for jugglers and gymnasts, with a bit of a twist. Traditional Chinese jugglers manipulate jugs. A large ceramic vase is balanced on the head and shoulders and rolled around the body. The work of the antipodist, or foot juggler,‘ traditionally a woman, employs the complexity of a physics problem with the patience of an angelic artist. One of the most difficult forms of juggling, antipodism is performed lying on the back on a specially constructed stand. Up to four squares of fabric spin like magic carpets on the performers hands and feet, wooden umbrellas are twirled and flipped, and mystery objects come into play.

The troupe does not like to glorify the individual‘ or invite comparisons by revealing identities of the performers, Mr. Hughes said. They prefer that audiences view the troupe as a whole in all its cooperative glory. Whether climbing a pagoda of chairs, balancing candles, spinning meteor bowls filled with water, or flying high in dive rolls over swirling flags, the Peking Acrobats are representing the Peoples Republic of China and they stand — on feet, hands or head — as a living tribute to a system driven to excellence.


New Jersey Performing Arts Center, One Center Street, Newark. Friday at 7:30 p.m.

(888) 466-5722.

McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. March 12 at 7:30 p.m. (609) 258-2787.