With the rise (and rise) of circus performances in the mold of Cirque de Soleil, western audiences have become more familiar with the astounding acts of physical ability acrobats can achieve, and also increasingly with an old school notion of razzle-dazzle to accompany such acts. Sets and costumes have evolved to elaborately frame these displays and a light narrative or theme is invoked to suggest continuity and order. The circus, in the last two decades, has evolved dramatically. Indeed it is safe to say that spectacle is established as the ruling aesthetic for Hollywood, and now Broadway.
Honing close to a tradition that reaches back centuries and, more formally, under the auspices of a state initiative established by the People’s Republic of China in 1950 – when twentieth century political propaganda was at a hysterical pitch internationally – where do such innovations now leave an outfit like The National Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China? This year The National Acrobats are conducting an inaugural tour of the United States (timing, you should understand, would be one of their strong points) and a lucky audience at a performance given at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts were given an opportunity on Saturday, October 29th,to assess.
Spectacle is spectacle, and the National Acrobats did not skimp in this lavish presentation. Acrobatics aside, the colorful costuming, with up to the moment interpretation, even in these digitally assimilated times, still projected a pronounced ethnic styling that evoked an exotic foreignness. Juggling props too held a distinct aura of the east. Bowls, fans, paper parasols, and Kungfu-inspired ”meteor hammers” were all pressed into use in routines that ran from single and two-performer pieces to elaborately choreographed ensemble acts.
In some group performances there might be as many as forty people on stage at once, and the eye hardly knew where to settle so many events were unfolding simultaneously. These dazzling productions were interspersed with quieter, concentrated turns where the audience was free to focus and marvel, as when a teetering ballerina positioned and stepped on point along the neck, arms, shoulders and head of a sturdy supporter as if he were merely part of her exercise environment. Prone on her back upon a chair, another juggler played with paper parasols, handling them with her feet in a manner most would find awkward with their hands, setting them spinning and bouncing above in a graceful display of physical acuity and extraordinary timing. An umbrella tossed upward will hang for a beat as the air beneath suspends its descent. It is astonishing to observe the confidence with which these jugglers deploy such fractional seconds. And don’t get me started about the ball juggler who was bouncing seven balls at once off the ground as he moved up and down a flight of steps! I tried to watch his hands, but they were just a pink blur.
The ensemble performances were just as mind-boggling. A chorus line of girls in feather-tipped headdresses juggling diabolos on strings in perfect unison; twenty-four girls clambering onto a single moving bicycle to form the “peacock’s spreading tail”; a band of young men bouncing helicoptering weighted chords of rope (the Kungfu inspired “meteor hammer”) back and forth on their feet as if they were beach balls; a group of young women each, just incidentally, balancing ten spinning plates on the end of thin poles as they contorted and balanced on top of one another. The amazement factor at the prowess and athleticism on show was cramped only slightly in those acts where the extreme difference in physical proportion between participants put you in mind, as with some ice skating pairings, that you were watching a demonstration that could as aptly be described as “girl throwing”. And, to be really picky, one could add that the relentless theatrical muzak din, a peculiar hybrid of western and eastern pop drone, was over the course of two hours, somewhat spirit-sapping. But, to be fair, you weren’t really noticing.
So what if the suggestion of a narrative here is pointedly dispensed with? Who cares about spectral political allegorical implications – the figure trembling at the top of the pyramid is utterly dependent on the solidity of the figures straining at the bottom? (Hmm; perhaps it’s even time western minds could re-engage with this notion.) What of the absence of any central star focus? (Though the charismatic solo ball-juggler- King of Nine Balls says the program – did command the loudest cheer at curtain call; tut-tut, decadent western sensibilities!) After all, it’s just show biz, isn’t it? State owned and fostered show biz. Approved sugar for the masses. What of it? Spectacle is spectacle is spectacle. Sugar is sugar. But oh, what fine, gorgeous, expertly spun sugar.