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Mind-Bending Acrobatics

Shangri-La Troupe Brings Fresh Approach to Familiar Tricks to Saddleback

November 07, 1998|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Acrobatic troupes have existed in China for thousands of years, according to producer Don Hughes, who presents the Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats at Saddleback College today. Even cave paintings in China show acrobats doing tricks, he said.

In fact, the most amazing trick of all may be that public fascination with them hasn't taken a tumble in today's jaded world.

"There's no jadedness about this show," said Hughes from his IAI Presentations Inc. offices in Pismo Beach. "You can't bring an act back for 25 years straight unless there's demand from the public. The colleges and universities that have us back year after year do so to make a profit. It's a show they can always sell out or nearly sell out . . . this is commercially viable culture."

The show is designed for all ages and there's no language barrier.

For its current U.S. tour, which began in New York in September and ends today at the McKinney Theatre on the Saddleback College campus in Mission Viejo, the 16-member group has programmed sequences variously focusing on a contortionist, broadswords and bows and kung fu-style martial arts displays.

A "pagoda of chairs" that Hughes said made his hands sweat the first time he saw it a quarter of a century ago, has only become more unnerving over time: Originally, the chairs were balanced vertically; now the pagoda is built with the chairs stacked at a 45-degree angle while participants do handstands on the chair backs.

Acts evolve for simple reasons of ego and healthy competition.

"You're an acrobat and you're doing a tumbling act," Hughes said. "You look around at other acts--you don't want to be the same. You see other tumblers' acts, and you say to yourself, 'How can I better that?' You embellish a little bit, and that becomes your new act. The acts are better every year because they're constantly embellished."

As for the contortionist who, say, folds her back in half then smokes a cigarette she holds with her feet, which are dangling by her ears, one wonders if that doesn't feed into the same element that attracts people to freak shows.

"We usually refer to those people as double-jointed," Hughes said. "The Chinese appear to be quadruple-jointed. But they are not merely bending their bodies. This is discipline, this is harmony, this is control--they're balancing something on their forehead or both hands or both feet while doing this. It all comes back to mind over matter--how they are going to twist their body in order to do this."

Ken Hai, Hughes' San Diego-based partner in bringing a number of Chinese acts to the United States, comes from three generations of Chinese acrobats. Hughes handles contracts and logistics; Hai the shows' direction and costumes.

The pair met 26 years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, where according to Hughes, he had been presenting Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," which bombed. A man came into his office with photos of the acrobats, Hughes recalled: "I said, 'You're booked.' "

The company subsequently played to sold-out audiences in Zimbabwe for a month, then in Las Vegas and Israel. Hughes moved to the United States, where the group worked with Liberace's stage shows for four years. In 1985, he opened offices in Beijing and Moscow.

Hughes' portfolio of touring attractions has included the Red Army Choir and Moscow Boys Choir. He and Hai recently brought over the Peking Opera and they'll present the Peking Acrobats at Orange Coast College on Feb. 6.

Hughes said that of all of his acts, the Chinese acrobats are the most professional.

"They can come into the most adverse circumstances and, instead of complaining, go on stage and do what they need to do as if they're on the best civic center stage," Hughes said.

"One year, an arts organization in Oregon had booked [the Shangri-La troupe], a sold-out show," he recalled. "The acrobats arrived and were getting ready to go on stage when all the lights in town went out. The utility company said it would be three hours before they'd be back on-line.

"It was the first event the woman had ever booked, and she started to cry. The acrobats told her to have everybody go into the parking lot. They put their bus on one side, the truck on the other to make a proscenium, had all the cars put their headlights on, did their show and left . . . Nobody had ever seen anything like that."

* Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats perform today at 8 p.m. in the McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. $20-$22. (949) 582-4656.

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