It’s a little strange to talk about the "Chinese circus," because it frames the art in Western terms. The world of Chinese acrobatics and variety is a vast, ancient and revered art form. It contains elements of Peking Opera, Shaolin martial arts (kung fu), spiritual Qi Gong study and street performance. Its history ranges through Confucius (whose father was an acrobat), the Great Wall period, Kublai Khan and even the Cultural Revolution.
Every year, more history unfolds in tiny paragraphs from books, the internet or my own travels. My husband and I (we’re clowns) have been lucky enough to work in China six times, including competing in a "circus" competition (it’s an acrobatic competition in their parlance). I wish I could share with you Peking Opera-- the art form Jackie Chan was trained in-- where opera, kung fu, acrobatics, juggling and theater all mix into one form. Imagine a Broadway show on steroids. Someday I hope a Lion Dance like I saw in China comes to the States, so that you could see the breath-taking partner acrobatics balanced atop dangerously high poles inside of a huge lion puppet that comes to life with blinking eyes, wagging tails, and comical personality.
Alas, this blog will have to do. Here are a few quick notes on Chinese circus and the world it comes from. I hope you someday also fall in love with Chinese circus and enjoy it as much as our own Western form.
First of all, Chinese acrobats are real artists, too. My Western peers casually comment on Chinese circus as if it were easy. Well, the Chinese just do that, they were born that way, or -- the worst -- they must have been forced to do that. This happens with contortion, especially. It’s easy for her, she was born with double joints, it’s nothing special.
Well, no, it is not easy for her. She has trained for many many years to do that. In the Western mind, we think nothing of a bevy of young girls standing on their bleeding toes for ballet, or for boys to wear thick pads for football. In China, the circus is valued as a celebrated art form, not merely kids’ entertainment as it is often considered here in the States, and many towns have a circus training club. Just like in ballet and sports, only a very small percentage make it professionally. You are seeing the best of the best, and it took a long time and a lot of practice to get there; it’s hard everywhere in the world to do a solid handstand.
Circus is an ancient art form in China. What we Westerners think of as circus is equestrian-based, and was only started relatively recently by English trick rider Philip Astley in 1768. In China, however, it has a tradition of over 2,000 years, and really got its groove on during the Han dynasty, around 100 BC. In particular, Wuqiao, a city 170 miles south of Beijing, is credited as the birthplace, and it is said that everyone in this town participates in the circus in some way. Every two years, an international circus competition happens in Wuqiao, and the world still comes to them to find the best new acts.
Modern American circus is influenced by Chinese technique. When Traces, Birdhouse Factory, and many other circus shows came to The New Victory Theater, audiences saw young Western acrobats doing classical Chinese acts like Chinese pole and hoop diving. That’s because many of these performers came from San Francisco, and had been trained by Master Lu Yi, the former artistic director of the Nanjing Troupe in China. He has been there for more than two decades, passing on techniques to students who specifically go to California to train with him. Here’s a quick video of him teaching.
Chinese circus traditionally uses ordinary objects in extraordinary ways. You may see plates, hats, urns, umbrellas, bikes and chairs in a Chinese circus. Even hoop diving, which looks unusual to modern eyes, was from the wooden hoops that held a mesh to clean grain, and the now common "Chinese pole" was originally bamboo. In ancient China, a great way to sell your wares was to gather a crowd and perform with your sales items. If a performer can stack 6 chairs and do a handstand on top, first of all, you’re going to notice and watch, and even more importantly, you know those chairs are high quality and worth buying.
Many Chinese acts are "ground" acts, meaning that they are performed on the ground. Most classical Chinese acts are from the old tradition of the marketplace and outdoor performance. Aerial work is a European circus tradition, which requires extensive rigging and which came about fairly recently; Jules Leotard invented the flying trapeze in 1859. Techniques have been crossing oceans, and the Chinese are now performing aerial just as Western circus artists now use classical Chinese apparatuses. One example of this exchange is China’s neighbor, North Korea, which has exceptional and innovative flying trapeze troupes. Women often star in these acts, performing astounding tricks that rival their Western, traditionally male-starring counterparts.
Clowns are not often in modern Chinese circus, though there are clowns to be found in Chinese history, most notably in Peking Opera. The most famous clown in Chinese history is Yu Sze, the court jester during the building of the Great Wall. It is said he saved thousands of lives in his interactions with the Emperor. In Peking Opera, famous to Western tourists who take home small trinkets of the elaborately painted faces of the characters, the clown actually wears far less makeup than you might expect, the inverse of our Western circus clown tradition.
Instead of a red nose and painted face, the Chinese "chou" has a small white patch between his or her eyebrows and the rest is a natural face color. I was fortunate to see some famous Peking Opera clown performers in Shanghai, and I was amazed at the expressiveness of such a small rectangular spot of white. Every emotion contracted or expanded easily, and it appeared that the performers built the spot to suit their individual face, much as our Western clowns create their own makeup.
Large group acts are common. Western circus is based on the star system, and often in high-end circuses, performers do only one act. That's not so with a Chinese troupe, as the majority of the performers do multiple routines in a show. Watch the performers closely, and you’ll recognize the base in the hat routine as the high jumper in the hoop dive act and the pole act. The plate-spinning women may also be in the contortion and diabolo acts. (Diabolo is also called the Chinese yo-yo, and it is not uncommon to see retirees playing with it early in the morning in the parks.) Much like a corps de ballet, this multi-disciplinary training approach gives greater flexibility in creating a show, helps prepare newer performers, and uses unison choreography to great effect. When you do see a soloist, it is someone who has reached the pinnacle of training and technique.
Whew! Now that you've got a little more background information on the rich history of Chinese circus, keep a close eye on the acts you'll see in Cirque Ziva. I hope you'll appreciate the twisting contortionists and precise tumblers even more than before.
Christina Gelsone works with her husband, Seth Bloom, as the Acrobuffos. Since becoming clown partners in 2006, they have created 5 shows together, competed in international circus festivals, performed in over 20 countries, juggled on Letterman, were featured in The New York Times, and headlined at the Big Apple Circus. The couple, who married each other in Hangzhou, China, also recently presented their new work for family audiences, Air Play, at The New Victory Theater as part of the New Victory LabWorks Artist Residency Program. Their websites are acrobuffos.com and airplayshow.com.