Chairway to heaven
Peking Acrobats present a finely balanced circus of wonders
The booming, pre-recorded circus-ringmaster voice that rang out with an old-fashioned reverb-laden “Please welcooome the PEKING ACROBATS!” was great, providing just the right touch of self-conscious showbiz bravado and humor to warm up the Laxson audience.
Watching the intricately mannered movements of the acrobats as they entered the stage, I was struck by their diminutive stature and youthful exuberance. Though performing as a troupe, each acrobat conveyed a sense of his or her individual personality through subtle differences in technique and presentation.
This became clearer as the acrobats, performing as individuals and in pairs, performed a series of spectacular climbs on two slender poles set upright in the center of the stage. Each climber exhibited astounding strength and grace as they climbed 25 or so feet up the poles using nothing but the power of their arms, but it was their dismounts that provided the gasp factor; from the top of their ascents the climbers would drop headfirst down the poles, only to check their descent with their hands at the last moment then rebound from the pole into a twisting flip or other airborne maneuver that left the audience gasping and applauding.
And that was only the one act in a seemingly inexhaustible cavalcade of acrobatic wonders—for instance, the segment humbly referred to as “foot juggling,” wherein three of the female acrobats reclined on matching divans arranged in a triangle about seven feet apart. Each was given a large ornate pot about a foot and a half in diameter and three feet tall to balance on her feet; she then began to spin the pot on the soles of her feet. Pretty amazing in and of itself, but then the three women began to pass the huge pots from one to the other, so that all three pots were rotating around the triangle from woman to woman, still spinning as they were passed.
Then, assistants came out bearing four-legged tables, about a yard square each. The foot jugglers each accepted one and began spinning it, first just with its legs up, then flipping it up on edge and spinning it vertically before beginning to pass the tables from one to the other as they had the pots. I, along with everyone else in the audience, including the many lucky kids, went nuts for this display of footloose dexterity.
By far the most beautifully staged of the evening’s events was the display of plate twirling, again conducted by the women of the troupe, holding upright three or four flexible wands in each hand on the top of which spun a small white plate, propelled by the sustained wrist action of the acrobats. Lighting and choreography combined to create a symmetrical, mobile tableau conveying a sense of ornate delicacy and nearly impossible control of balance.
And then two of the twirlers began to interact, with one tiny acrobat climbing onto another to continue spinning her plates with one hand even as she performed a one-handed hand stand on her partner’s head. When two of her plates spun to the ground during her dismount it only reinforced the knowledge that what we were watching was in no way faked.
Next up came the chair-balancing act, in which a single acrobat built and climbed a tower of six chairs balanced foot-to-back on top of four glass bottles on a table, nearly to the ceiling of the auditorium, at the top of which he performed a series of acrobatic maneuvers that most gymnasts would find difficult performing at floor level. It’s a tribute to the skill and consistency of the acrobats’ performance that no safeguard was provided to cover the possibility that if the tower toppled at least part of it could land in the front row of the audience.
The climactic “peacock bicycle,” which involved 12 acrobats riding around symmetrically fanned out on one bicycle, provided a spectacular ending softened by a mass finale of all the acrobats on stage juggling, tumbling and dancing in a blaze of glory.
This is a show that I recommend to anyone, and if you can bring some kids please do so. They’ll never forget it.