Moves are afoot to give a dynamic, new lease on life to the ancient art of Chinese acrobatics. More than 50 directors of acrobatic troupes and acrobats in China came together, at the Chinese Acrobatics Forum to discuss the challenges and creative development of the art. The forum, held December 16 in Beijing, is the first such exercise held by China's Ministry of Culture.
With a history of 3,000 years and its predominance in superior body skills, Chinese acrobatics has received international acclaim in several important competitions, including winning the France Chief Executive Prize in the Future International Acrobatic Festival and the top spot in the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo. There are many acrobatic skills - juggling bowls, chair balancing and diving through hoops, to name a few - for which the Chinese are renowned.
Statistics released in the forum reveal that there are 124 acrobatic troupes, 12,000 professional staff and almost a 100,000 people working in this industry in China now. However, in recent years, many local troupes faced the embarrassing situation of performing for low fees in the international market and losing their domestic audience. Some are struggling to survive the prevalent market pressure.
"In the international market, we are seen as 'raw material export' due to lack of independent management and adequate market share. And, in the domestic market, audience demand for production of acrobatic performances is way too low," said Bian Faji, chairman of the Chinese Acrobatics Association.
Among the reasons for these problems are repetitive performances and the lack of creativity, as many experts have pointed out. "I have often heard people say that they don't want to watch acrobatics, because they think it lacks variety and rapid movement, and that it is only some bowls and plates," said Sun Lili, deputy general manager of China National Acrobatic Troupe (CNAT). "The copying of items, restricted development, lack of variety and these resulting in the decline of new performances are the main problems that hinder the growth of acrobatics," commented Cai Wu, Minister of China's Ministry of Culture.
Sun explained that actually there are many ways to choreograph new acrobatic skills, such as the compounding of different styles, the combining of acrobatic skills and ballet, and through creation of new props. "It is a difficult skill, and it needs to be beautifully rendered, to evoke the aesthetic appreciation of audiences instead becoming a painful experience for the viewers,'' Sun said.
"The acrobats need not only high quality skills, but also the comprehensive ability for performing, including music, dance, acting," added Sun.
Some experts point to the need for a change in the concept for acrobatics development. It is very important to go beyond the creation of single items. "Some renowned foreign troupes have brought a new concept to the art of acrobatics. They have changed the performance formula by presenting the themed show with acrobatics as an element. With the predominance of this trend in the mainstream market, China lost its advantage" said Yu Yigang, general director of Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe (SAT).
In a move to change the situation, SAT has carried out a thorough reform of its operations. Since 2005, SAT has invested 30 million yuan ($4.5 million) to create ERA-Intersection of Time, a splendid blend of ancient acrobatic skills, high technology and multi-media.
"High, difficult, breathtaking and dangerous movements are the characteristics of Chinese acrobatics. But the potential of the human body has its limitations. Therefore, development of acrobatics requires developing high technology to expand the space for performance,'' Yu said. He explained that the success of ERA-Intersection of Time was the result of an international approach, a combination of art and technology, and it being a market-oriented operation. "If you want to change the situation, you have to change the concept, and break out of the old management system," said Yu. Reorganized as a market-oriented company instead of a state-funded troupe, SAT could carry out comprehensive marketing plans and promotional activity for ERA-Intersection of Time. This approach succeeded and brought handsome dividends. The show became a great success at the Shanghai Circus World - 2070 performances have earned 0.22 billion yuan ($33 million) until now. In January, the team will begin its foreign tours by traveling to South Korea. "With the deepening reform of the cultural system, the environment for the acrobatics industry will change a lot in the future. As a result, the structure of acrobatics will also change," said Yu. He was confident that, "All these will offer more space for Chinese acrobatics industry to grow, and gain new and wider audiences at home and abroad."