Life's a whirl for top-flight acrobats

Updated: 2014-05-11 07:35

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)

Life's a whirl for top-flight acrobats

The Guangzhou Acrobatic Troupe, which recruits students from around the country, is arguably China’s best.

Wang remembers the first time he saw his name on the list of acrobats the troupe was sending to tour overseas.

"I instantly felt dizzy," he says.

"It was like: 'Wow! Me? Going abroad? Taking a flight?'

"I was standing on top of the world. I literally felt so. One minute before that I was a mere 10-year-old trying to hide a half-eaten chocolate bar from a 'big brother' in the troupe, who'd been asked to keep an eye on my weight - you have to be mindful of it when you're standing on somebody's shoulders."

Wang recalls constantly checking his pockets for his passport to make sure he still had it during the 15-hour flight to Europe.

What awaited him was something he had never imagined: packed houses, enraptured audiences, media interviews and autograph requests.

"That's when I realized I had to practice a bit on my less-than-presentable handwriting," Wang says, abashedly.

"Everywhere we went, we were invited to perform at the most esteemed venues - the Kremlin in Moscow, Covent Garden in London. That says a lot about how they thought of us as artists."

Yes, artist - that is what Wu Zhengdan, 33, insisted on being called when she imagined herself as the proud "Swan of the Orient" in the namesake performance.

Pirouetting on the shoulder of her longtime stage partner and husband Wei Baohua, who is 10 years her senior, Wu captured the imagination of her audience and catapulted it to a new horizon, where acrobatics meets ballet.

"I was hit by the idea back in 1998, and I still remember vividly how I had struggled to stand on pointe after first slipping into a pair of ballet shoes," Wu says.

"By introducing the elegance and storytelling of ballet to acrobatics, we intended to cast the age-old art in a new, and probably more poetic, light."

Wu and her husband, one of only two couples in the troupe, worked hard on this.

"I started by doing pirouettes and arabesques on his back, and from there I went on to alight on his shoulder, his deltoids and ultimately the top of his head," Wu says.

"For him, my feet, which were constantly bleeding, had become de facto meat grinders. With every turn, the tips of my delicate shoes bored deeper and deeper into his shoulder until it turned into a big unsightly sore. But none of that pain - only beauty - showed in what we finally presented."

But many Chinese acrobats find the idea of enshrining beauty disturbing or even provocative, the Guangzhou troupe's director Li Yaping says.

"There has always been this deeply entrenched view that the core value of acrobatics lies with its shock factor. In other words, the more jaw-dropping, the better," says Li, 45, who was a budding gymnast before joining the troupe in 1985.

"This 'puritanical' view has not only prevented acrobatics from absorbing outside influences but also reinforced people's perception of it as being a cruel, twisted form of art - if the word art can still be used."

Wei, who is also the troupe's deputy director, agrees.

"There's only a limited number of things one can do with his body, however hard he has challenged himself," says Wei, who endured the unendurable to reach this conclusion.

"At the annual Monte Carlo International Acrobatic Competition, an event dubbed the Oscars of the acrobatic world, our Swan of the Orient won the highest prize in 2002. This, I believe, has revealed the future for all of us, that the one thing we've spent our lives serving should be elevated to the status of true art. All true art exacts a price on its practitioners and at the same time embraces and celebrates humanity."

Three of the troupe's roughly 100 acrobats are younger than 13.

They have been taken under the wing of Zhao Yuqin, 61. She has stuck with the troupe for nearly three decades and trained six generations of acrobats.

She is known for her strong will. Zhao once brought her niece to Guangzhou from her hometown over 1,000 kilometers away and made her a child star and international prize-winning acrobat.

"I used to be very strict, especially with my niece. But these days, I'm much softer and never push these kids too hard. Maybe I'm getting old," she says, sighing.

"Now I just want the best for all of them, as people as well as acrobats."

As Zhao speaks, Zhao Wan-ting, one of her favorite students, practices a stunt first achieved by Zhao's niece about two decades ago, biting a bar to do a headstand supported only by her teeth. Her face reddens.

Wang says: "Most of us didn't choose acrobatics. Acrobatics chose us."

Twists of fate pushed many of the country's estimated 300,000 acrobats into the trade.

Financial woes partly caused Wang's mother to leave home when he was 4.

She never returned. He was brought up by his fraternal aunt, who decided acrobatics was his best hope.

Wang believes she was right.

"All my family - my dad, my aunt and my grandma - have seen me perform on TV.

"I wish Mom could someday do the same. Destiny pushed but didn't overpower me. Instead, I turned around and seized it."

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