Made in China: Acrobats

Chinese acrobats have been around for 2,000 years. They have perfected the ancient art that the one place to go to if you want to see acrobats is China. Historically speaking, Chinese acrobatics (formally known as Chinese variety art) has been around since the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. It was popular in the Imperial court until it spilled into the masses.

One of the best troupes is the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe. They have traveled around the world from Chicago to Sydney to Rome, showcasing their amazing talents in contortion and movement. In fact, the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe is one of the things you should see when you’re in the city. The troupe is divided into two – one in the Shanghai Center Theater and the other is in Shanghai Circus World. I was fortunate enough to have seen both shows.

We actually discovered Shanghai Circus World by accident. Before heading out on our first day, we asked the hotel concierge how to get to the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe. The concierge couldn’t understand English but I saw a pamphlet on the desk of a girl doing acrobats. I showed it to her and she wrote the direction down in Chinese characters so we could ask around. I found a friendly couple who gave us directions and taught us how to use the train. The Circus World had its own station but we were disappointed to see that it wasn’t what we wanted. Since we were already there (and it was far from the other places we planned to go to), we decided to buy tickets and enjoy the show instead. I couldn’t remember the exact price and it doesn’t indicate on the ticket I kept but it was around P1,200 for third row seats. Prices vary according to seat numbers.

We were further disappointed when we saw the large puppets and the audience filled with children and their parents. It was obviously a kid’s show. I started to lower my expectations.

The troupe surprised me when they started to do their stunts, which left me completely breathless. They started throwing themselves into the air and flying around the arena with only pieces of cloth to hold their chests, arms or legs. These people were just amazing.

My favorite act was the one with the boys who did balancing acts on horses. These guys were incredible. Would you believe that these guys jumped one by one while the horses were galloping at top speed? They would then throw themselves on top of each other’s shoulders until they built this pyramid.

There were acts with animals involved. There were seals that did ball tricks, ponies that danced, parrots, bears, and monkeys that rode bikes. There were even two parrots who played basketball! The lion segment was scary. There were two white tigers and two lions and the lion tamers (a man and woman team) made them do tricks. The felines were obviously in terrible moods and wouldn’t do it unless they were given meat.

The highlight and finale of the show was this large metallic contraption with two circles where a person could stand in. They would rotate this very fast (like a turbine) and do tricks. At one point, one guy went on top and juggled. It was really wild because they didn’t use nets and it was so high.
Closing. The show was really worth it, considering it was for kids. What more could I expect from the actual Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe? Actually, while I was writing this, I did a little research on Circus World and the group is part of the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe. The building, a permanent indoor circus was built in 1999 to house the troupe who were tired of travelling around the world without a theater to call their own. Within a few weeks, it became one of the most popular attractions in the city and was billed as the number one circus in Asia.
The following day, we went to watch the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe in Shanghai Centre Theater. This was what we really wanted to watch and was looking forward to the stunts because of what we saw in Shanghai Circus World. We also had third row seats and from what I can remember, we paid around Y200 (P1,400) per ticket. It was worth every centavo because this was the group that went around the world to entertain millions of people.
You could tell that these people had a reputation because the audience was filled with foreigners. We didn’t see any Chinese locals unlike in Shanghai Circus World. Perhaps it was deemed expensive by locals, or maybe it’s part of their culture and they’re all acrobats.
If the Shanghai Circus World was amazing, the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe was simply divine. Their acts were all gravity-defying and I found myself loudly gasping after what looked like an impossible stunt. Their acts were similar to Circus World but they brought it up by several notches. It was mindblowing. I wasn’t bored with any act.
One stunt required audience participation. It was that classic act where someone leans against a board while someone throws a knife from across the stage. I was casually watching his assistant pretending to look into the crowd, looking for a participant. I remember thinking about how I could learn acrobatics when his steady gaze fell upon me. How could he not see me? I was sitting in the aisle seat of the third row and I was wearing a bright yellow shirt. I was like, holy shit.
He went down the stage and tried to convince me to go up. He was a ‘mime’ and he was just smiling stupidly (as was his role) while he beckoned me. My reaction was “Are you fucking kidding me? No.” I was so freaked out that that was the only thing I could say. He just thanked me and proceeded to the back of audience. One guy went up, but only after his friend and the crowd cheered him on.
Apparently, what happened was the mime put a jacket over the participant’s head, stabbed the board and urged everyone to pretend the man threw it. They did this three times and even did one where the mime stabbed the space between the participant’s legs. He got a prize and a huge cheer from the crowd.
I felt cheated. I’m an adventurous guy who rarely says no to a new experience. I would have said yes but I didn’t want to risk getting stabbed. If I knew the man was only going to pretend to throw the knife, I could have even leaned on the wall upside down. I could have done whatever the man wanted me to do.
I was appeased when I got a card from a lady magician’s trick. Out of nowhere, she managed to conjure thousands of cards from her hands which she threw around the stage and the audience. I swear, she threw over a thousand cards. It was that many.
The Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe (in general) is definitely a must-see. Since you’re watching on their turf, tickets are a lot cheaper than when they perform in other countries. The troupe that performs in the Shanghai Center Theater performs every night at 7.30PM. They change the routines and acrobats every night so the show is not the same two nights in a row.

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