Spectacular Acrobatic Production Value


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Peking Acrobats are super athletes.

Photo by Tom Meinhold

Martha Graham, the doyenne of Modern Dance, called dancers “the athletes of God.” They become that “by the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit.” While she was talking about dancers, she might as well have included the Chinese acrobats whose physical and mental disciplines are not all that different from what is asked of dancers. Both engage in performance genres that demand years of intensive training, absolute commitment, and mental stamina, often starting at a very young age.

Many of the acts that we admire in companies, such as the Peking Acrobats, whose displays of physical bravura and daredevil courage make you grab on to your seat, originated in one of the folk cultures in the multi-ethnic China. But balancing, twirling, and aerial have moved from country fairs to exquisitely refined stage performances that test tasks of timing and coordination. Dancers understand that.

The Peking Acrobats, who are returning to Cal Performances this month, is but one of about 200 acrobatic companies in China, many of whom were created to familiarize Western audiences with Chinese culture. Cross-pollination became inevitable.

Cirque du Soleil learned from these no-animals circus performers. They even hired some. Today some of Cirque’s artists work in China. For their part, the traveling acrobatic Chinese companies have adjusted their production values to a level as spectacular as anything you might see from their Western colleagues. Most interesting, perhaps, is to see how some Western dancers expanded their own performance vocabulary to include gymnastic moves, embracing aerial work, props, and even large-scale equipment.

In terms of their goals, acrobatic arts and dance used to be miles apart. Acrobatic artists showed spectacular physical feats with grace and courage as a joyous tribute to the human body’s potential. Western dance generally mistrusts bravura displays for their own sake; it looks for the thrust of some kind of emotional logic to hold a performance together. But there is now a Chinese acrobatic Swan Lake as well as a Cinderella. Yet bravura for its own sake is no stranger in Western dance. Why, otherwise, do we feel the need to count the Black Swan’s 32 fouettés or watch for the spacing of Giselle’s hops on points?

Maybe, just maybe, one of these days, Chinese acrobats and Western dancers will share a stage together.

 

Peking Acrobats, Jan. 27, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Jan. 28, 3 p.m., $30-plus, CalPerformances, Berkeley, 510-642-9988, CalPerformances.org

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