The Mongolian Unicycle Bowl Flip
The first record of Chinese acrobatics is from about a thousand years BC: it's about trick-riding on horseback. The acrobatic tradition was already well developed by 200, from whence we have a Chinese tomb painting featuring plate-spinning and other acrobatics. It was a grassroots art - at the harvest festival, people would throw themselves around showing their acrobatic skills. Acrobatic families developed onto dynasties, with generations of performers. All early acrobats were familiar with the tradition of Qi Gong - literally, "spirits from air" - a spiritual discipline of breathing and movement.
The magic and acrobatics of Shaghai developed into a form called hai. Shanghai's several acrobatic troupes distilled down to the Shanghai Magic Troupe, and its branch for overseas performances, The New Shanghai Circus. They're touring here now, and their first stop was New York's New Victory Theatre.
The New Victory always presents shows for children, but the adults outnumbered the kids in the audience. You'd have to be embalmed and entombed not to enjoy this show. From their opening tableau through the strong man, the twenty-member troupe is terrific.
One juggler juggles the others - with her feet! One shoots the flames off candles on a girls head - four at once! One woman takes a bunch of hula hoops and works them so they separate, the top rising to her arms overhead, the bottom one twirling down to her legs. They crowd eleven on to a bicycle - ten on the peddler's shoulders!
My favorite was the Mongolian Unicycle Bowl Flip (no kidding). An acrobat on a unicycle kick bowls on to heads of the others, also on unicycles, who end up with a pile of them on their heads. One bowl landed askew on the pile, so the woman reached up and straightened it. She couldn't have seen it - she could feel it was off-balance.
Their motions are grand and elegant - they make a ritualistic gesture out of putting an arrow in a bow. The costumes are absolutely unique - with those tiaras and skirts-over-pants, they couldn't be anything except Chinese circus. The backdrop of the great Wall is certainly impressive. And there's a range of music - from Chinese classical to Chinese disco.
Even the program is in the spirit of circus. It lists the acts, but in the wrong order. They list acts they don't show, and show acts they don't list. It's great!
- Steve Capra