Sunday, February 26, 2012

Don't Try This at Home: The Peking Acrobats

For some time now, my dad has expressed an interesting in seeing Chinese acrobats. We were intending to go more than a year, but I intended up becoming quite ill the day before the performance so we were unable to go. But at last, we were able to make the trip to McCarter Theatre today and see The Peking Acrobats perform.

The Peking Acrobats consists of a troupe of 25 performers who dazzled the crowd with acrobatics, contortions, balancing acts, juggling, dancing, cycling, and so forth. As one little girl excitedly exclaimed at the performance today, seeing The Peking Acrobats is like a trip to the circus. In addition to the acrobatics the circus atmosphere was further reinforced with the live musicians that were on scene to set the tone. In addition, some of the performers played clownish roles with silly physical comedy jokes that I didn’t care for too much, but the children in the audience found hilarious. There was even one act that involved several of the performers dressed up like dragons that were more like big furry dogs, so even the animals aspects of a circus was covered despite the lack of pachyderms. (Of course, I’ve never actually been to a circus, so perhaps this performance is more like what I expect from the circus rather than what a circus is actually like.)

Considered a family event, the theater was full of all kinds of children – young and old – as everyone stared in childlike wonder at the feats displayed before them. (And the woman in front of me forgot adult manners and kept tapping on her husband’s shoulder with commentary and questions using her regular speaking voice.) I’ve never heard so many oohs and ahhs in one place before, along with astonished gasps, “wows!” and “amazing!” You’d be hard pressed to find a person in the crowd who wasn’t blown away by this performance, which received a standing ovation from a packed house. Just when the audience would think they had seen all the performers could do, the acrobats upped the ante. Think it’s amazing that a woman can balance a full wine glass on her nose? How about more than a dozen full wine glasses? How about if she stands atop a wobbly step while balancing the glasses? How about if she climbs a ladder while maintaining balance on her nose? How about if she then pulls out a ribbon for each hand and starts twirling without so much as sloshing one drop of liquid from those glasses?

Indeed, the acts on display were often so intense as to induce fear in me for the performers. In particular, one sequence required a man to continually stack chairs upon one another and then perform acrobatics from atop them all – some 20 feet in the air without a safety net and without a single person on stage with him. I was terrified he would fall and have no one there to catch him. He didn’t but still. There were a number of times I was afraid someone was going to break a bone in their attempt to entertain us all, especially considering how all of their equipment is pretty bare bones and intended to be taken apart easily. These performers showed not only bravery but extreme flexibility, strength, and stamina (the show was two hours long with only one brief intermission).

My only complaint about the performance was a subtle one that most people would not notice or be bothered by. Besides the opening and closing sequences, there were few acts that featured the male and female performers together. Instead, there would be a men’s act followed by a female’s act. That would be fine if it weren’t that the first several sequences seemed to be very disparate for the men and the women. The male acts featured thrilling, flashy acrobatics involving leaping onto poles and jumping through hoops while the female sequences involved juggling plates and expressive dances involving paper parasol twirling. Both were mesmerizing in their own right, but there seemed to be a subtext that male acrobats are daring while female ones are graceful. This was further reinforced by the men wearing brightly colored red or yellow costumes while the women were dressed in cooler blues and greens; even the music became softer when the women were on stage. As the show progressed, however, the differences between the male and female acrobatics lessened and the finale involved both set of acrobats performing virtually the same feats.

The Peking Acrobats were only at McCarter for this one night, but you might be able to catch them some other time. Or you can apparently buy a DVD of one of their performances and be wowed at home.

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