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The greatest show on Earth
By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-11-05 10:28

The greatest show on Earth

Gravity-defying acrobatics by Chinese performers were a highlight of the 12th China Wuqiao International Circus Festival held in Hebei province.

It's a celebration of what the human body can do when a performer defies the force of gravity, locks a foot on a pole and extends vertically, arms akimbo and horizontal to the ground. It's an affirmation of what human intelligence and mental strength can achieve, making bulky tigers jump through burning hoops, balancing drums on the soles of one's upturned feet and even playing on them.

As the flag went down for the 12th edition of the China Wuqiao International Circus Festival (CWICF) on Saturday at Shijiazhuang, Hebei, each performance was also a story and a sublime experience.

A couple of gymnasts on the rope from China, flying, suspended precariously from a thick cord, showed their art in the form of a tragic love story, in a dreamy fairy tale setting. Paul Herzfeld from France invested his solo performance on the Chinese pole with a dark, brooding intensity. The straw-hat jugglers from Wuqiao Acrobatics Group, throwing their colored props to make garlands in the air, gave a happy, harvest feel to the show.

As Gen Funing, vice-chairman of the China National Acrobatics Association and chair of the jury at CWICF, says: "Circus is now a comprehensive art. There's a focus on cultural issues. Lots of modern elements and drama have been incorporated. Chinese novels are being told in the form of Russian ballet, engaging elements of Chinese acrobatics."

The hoop divers from Guangzhou, for instance, who throw themselves through rings at up to 3 m from the ground, are dressed like gladiators. The gymnasts from Liaoning province combine ballet with hand balancing, the lead player fluttering like a butterfly on a giant lotus, perched atop four tiers of fellow players arched on their backs.

Named after the acrobat's hub in Wuqiao, Hebei province, the festival began in 1987 and has been held every odd year since. It has not only grown in size (over 200 performers from 22 countries participated this year) but also in terms of styling, technological input and international recognition. Barbro Nordstrom, artistic director with Ludvika Mini Circus in Sweden, feels CWICF is on a par with Monte Carlo, recognized as the biggest of all entertainment festivals.

The CWICF, says Dong Baojin, who first came to the festival in 1987 as a gymnast, performing the balancing act on a stand 10 m above the ground is "a bridge between China's best and the world's finest. Any international acrobatic festival today would be incomplete without Chinese participation."

The range of innovations that Chinese acrobatic performances present to the world is overwhelming. Comedy is blended with foot juggling and shadow play, gymnastic skills with singing in a high-octane Hebei opera. Fifteen girls plant themselves on a running bicycle, fanning out on either side and manage to stay on course. It could be somewhat intimidating for a first-time performer.

"I am a little apprehensive before I go up on the human pyramid," says Lin Shuai, an 18-year-old hat juggler. "But since the first show I am confident, in total control of my body movements."

But skilled performances and spectacular dramas are only part of the story.

"We want to create the atmosphere of a happy carnival, even as we aspire toward creating a cultural industry," says Xin Jieli, CWICF deputy director. "Those selected to perform here are China's first rate acrobats. This is a platform to introduce them to the world through agencies, circus directors and impresarios from all over the world."

The greatest show on Earth

A clown from Ukraine engages the audience at the festival.

The effort has paid off. Barbro Nordstrom has been attending CWICF as a member of the jury since 1989. She can't stop gushing about the Hebei acrobats who have been invited to perform in Sweden three times. It's lucky to be` a gymnast in China now, she says.

"Ten different circus schools may be performing the same tricks but each in its own style and character," she says, adding that the Chinese always had top-class technique, now they have also learnt to package it well.

In fact, if Chinese performance directors have picked some of the sophisticated equipment and technological skills from other cultures, some of them are also leaving their own imprint on Western traditions.

An adorable satyr sporting a cute goatee scampers around in the aisles between set changes. He daintily kisses a lady's hand, and then does a double summersault in the air, landing precisely on the stilts, concealed under the hairy costume, towering four feet above the crowd, astonished and eager.

Christopher Keller, from San Francisco Circus Center, who picked up the concept and the skills of playing Pan from master teacher Lu Yi has taken his training as a gymnast to the next level by adding the "clowny bit".

"I am a huge fan of Greek mythology," he says, "especially Pan, the only god who dies. But there's no social message. This is just for fun."

Contrastingly, for Sean Rooney, the CWICF is not just about showcasing amazing human feats. Dressed in bulbous pajamas, and wearing a red cherry perched on his nose, Rooney might look like just another comedian. But the performer from Toronto, Canada, who created a giant figure of the lion Zhuang Zhuang, the cheerful CWICF mascot, came to the festival with a mission.

"In the future flags will be replaced by balloons as a marker of peace initiatives," says the creator of balloon installations, claiming that balloon art can help "loosen polarizations and dissolve divisions in a society" because of its positive association with childhood and innocence.

If you have been to the CWICF, maybe the next time you read about conflict resolution or climate change, you will think balloons.

The 12th Wuqiao International festival runs till Sunday at Shijiazhuang, moving to Cangzhou thereafter, where it will run till Nov 13.

Jing Haixing contributed to the story