Not long ago, a reviewer in these pages praised a visiting Chinese acrobatic troupe but doubted that acrobatics qualify as Art. It was a drama reviewer, of course, and defining Art seems to be a major matter in the legitimate theater. But dance writers are more flexible about such issues. With reason.
For nearly a quarter-century, avant-garde choreographers have shown that any physical discipline can be the basis for serious movement compositions. Even the conservative classical ballet of the late 19th Century was about nothing so much as the revelation of form through technique.
Certainly the Rose Adagio became the highlight of "The Sleeping Beauty" and the touchstone of classicism not because of its meager expressive content but because of how perfectly it defined--and extended--the formal possibilities and challenges of a prima ballerina.
In this sense, not only does the Chongqing Acrobatic Troupe from China (now at the TDK Showcase Theatre of Six Flags Magic Mountain) perform classic Art, it even supplies its very own Princess Aurora: an astonishing 17-year-old beauty named Huang Fang.
At the full-length Chongqing program on Sunday (a combination of all the acts to be seen in four short performances scheduled daily, except Fridays, through Labor Day), Fang appeared right away: balancing bowls while in improbable contortions atop the head of the handsome Wang Min.
She returned in a star solo--curling herself in extreme backbends (ankles against ears), until she looked nearly squidlike, and then balancing crockery on hands, chin, feet and forehead. And she rode to glory at the center of the final, 12-acrobat bicycle act: a regal, glittering prima if there ever was one.
Because human limbs and, especially, the human back don't normally hinge in quite as many places--or directions--as Fang's, her phenomenal pliancy may seem as bizarre to us as the 32 fouette turns must have appeared to Russian audiences when Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani first danced them in St. Petersburg in 1893.
So Fang is no freak, merely someone defining extraordinary new technical opportunities in a familiar art. When she occasionally deigns to stand erect, she projects the noble proportions and elegant line of a classical dancer. She also moves gracefully and the choreographic ornaments of her solo (the Hinduesque mudras , for instance) are beautifully executed. She is thus equally a dancer, a gymnast, a contortionist, an artist. And who knows how many more like her there are back home in Sichuan?
Unlike some Chinese acrobats who have displayed their specialties almost impersonally, like athletes in costume, she and her 12 colleagues are exciting performers. Their notable warmth may be no surprise to anyone familiar with Chinese cuisine--can there be anything cool from Sichuan?--but it personalizes the most familiar acts on the program: the tower of chairs (here raised by a seven-woman team), the bowls of water slung and then flung on long ropes, the spectacular bike tricks.
The Chongqing repertory also includes show-stopping rarities of daunting difficulty: a pair of acrobats balancing on an 18-foot bamboo pole that in turn is balanced on a man's shoulder; a reclining woman who uses her feet to flip and spin not the customary beach ball but another woman; head-to-head balancing that incorporates a dizzying array of prop ladders, benches, poles and rings.
There are, moreover, welcome interludes of physical comedy, including a display of mock-magic led by Shu-Wang Lin that addresses the eternal question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
A warning for thrill-seekers: The pole-climbers and other aerial specialists don't ascend without safety cables; their chairs have been notched and grooved for balancing--the Chinese are no fools. As company tour producer Mark Wilson pointed out Sunday, they are artists, not daredevils.
But for anyone who can't be awed by acts employing artificial (and humane) means of support, there is always Huang Fang and her very virtuosic vertebrae.