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Acrobatics Leaps to New Heights
2004/10/27
CHEN JIE
2003-10-22

"Reverie" - currently running at the Universal Theatre - is a stunning showcase of innovative Chinese acrobatics.

The allure of acrobatics has always been magical, but "Reverie" has redefined the meaning of the word and elevated it to a new level. This is performing art without boundaries...ballet without gravity.

The show's intoxicating melange of costumes, music, stage design and showmanship has dazzled local audiences and foreigners alike.

In marked contrast to traditional Chinese acrobatic shows which focus mainly on the breathtaking stunts, "Reverie" plays out like a beautifully choreographed aerial operetta, telling the story of a female performer who has been fascinated by acrobatics since her girlhood.

The show opens in a flashback mode, with a cute little girl dressed in a red lantern-shaped skirt dancing onto the stage to lead the audience into her colourful dream.

Two clowns show her around the world of acrobatics. Amazed by the performances, the girl tries to imitate them and dances with them. Later she grows up to be a real acrobat.

Jointly produced by the China Acrobatics Troupe and the China Performing Arts Agency, the show enthrals audiences by taking the artistic level of traditional Chinese acrobatics to a new level.

The history of Chinese acrobatics dates back nearly 2,000 years, and Chinese performers have won numerous top awards in international competitions. However, for some time, the popularity of acrobatics has been in decline at home.

Challenged by various new forms, traditional acrobatics, which look more like a gymnastic competition, are dying in the domestic market. Except for some productions specially designed for foreigners, there are few shows for the homegrown crowds, and only a few programmes are seen on TV variety shows during the holidays.

Sun Lili, vice-president of the China Acrobatics Troupe, says: "As we all know, in international contests, we acrobats often win over the competitors and the juries for our unparalleled skills. However, as we pay more attention to the skills, we have neglected the artistic aspect."

It's true. The difficult movements alone cannot attract today's audience and some people even think some stunts pose too great a challenge to the limits of human ability and look a little cruel.

Li Yannian, director with the acrobatics branch of the Ministry of Culture, said: "On the other hand, many foreign presenters find good business with Chinese acrobatics. They reproduce these very difficult programmes with thrilling make-up, costumes, music and lighting and bring them abroad. These touring shows are welcomed by the foreigners."

Realizing the shortcoming of Chinese acrobatics, Li Enjie, president of China Acrobatics Troupe, has encouraged his troupe to produce their own shows with high-tech sets and lighting, and mix in popular music and dance. Thus Li launched production of "Reverie" early this year, joining forces with the China Performing Arts Agency, the leading company to import and export shows in China, whose acrobatics show "T'ai Chi" and kungfu show "Shaolin Warriors" have been huge box-office hits around the world over the past two years.

From the outset, Li and Zhang Yu, general manager of the China Performing Arts Agency, agreed "Reverie" should be a hit both on the stage and at the box-office.

The high-tech blend of jazz and rock 'n roll was one major innovation. Another was their choice of a director.

Other troupes exploring ways to improve their programmes have invited such nationally-renowned choreographers as Zhang Jigang and Zhao Ming and theatre directors such as Chen Weiya to direct their shows. But "Reverie" marks the first time a modern dance choreographer has been invited to direct a major acrobatics show.

Liu Chun, one of the leading young modern dance choreographers in China, brings many fresh elements to the show. Graduated from Beijing Dance Academy in 1996, Liu gained a master's degree from the Dance Academy of China Arts Research Institute in 1999 and has since been devoted to choreographing original dance and producing experimental mini-theatrical presentations featuring dance, acting and video.

"I had never touched acrobatics before, so I faced no pressure or limitations," said Liu. "What I do is to tell a story and express a feeling in my way, so to some degree, it's the same as when I choreograph a modern dance."

The innovative mixture of other elements does not mean that it overshadows the acrobatics. All the feats featured in the show scooped national and international awards.

Among other honours, "plate tricks" was the top prize winner in the national competition; "hoop diving" won the golden prize at the Warsaw International Circus Festival and the "pole climbing" gained the top award at the St Petersburg Intentional Young Acrobats Competition.

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