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Achieving the Power of Balance

Acrobatics Taiwanese performers turn law of gravity into more of a theory of gravity.

November 11, 1998|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do a card table, four champagne bottles and seven chairs make? A jaw-dropping balancing act perfected by the National Acrobats of China. Well, nearly perfected.

"If a trick fails, they'll do it again for the audience," said Paul Bartlett, a troupe translator. "But I've never seen them not complete a trick in the time I've been traveling with the company."

That's been since September, when the 35-member ensemble of derring-do bicycle riders, magicians, contortionists, jugglers, acrobats and aerialists, all of whom perform without safety lines, left Taiwan for their first United States tour.

The 40-year-old troupe appears Thursday through Sunday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, where it will reenact its chair-stacking trick by placing each leg of a chair atop a champagne bottle resting on a card table.

Then, the seat of a second chair, which is turned upside down, is balanced atop the back of the first, and so on, through the seventh chair. An acrobat then ascends the 35-foot-high tower, the company's artistic director, Lo Jih-hung, said through Bartlett during a recent interview from the road.

"At the top, the acrobat does balancing acts," Lo said, such as one-handed handstands during which his split legs appear to be cantilevered into space, off the teetering tower's center of gravity.

Other numbers crammed into the two-hour show find men climbing skinny bamboo poles, women juggling fat porcelain vases with their feet, tumblers flying through hoops of fire and knives, and magicians, like Lo, performing such gasp-inducing illusions as levitation.

*

Some acts, as described in the program, strive for atmospheric illusion through sets, costumes and recorded Chinese music. One takes audiences deep inside an ancient Chinese palace where courtiers in traditional dress carry delicate lanterns. In another, dancers wave wide strips of white cloth like "floating clouds" in "an imaginary heavenly fairyland."

This may sound like Canada's magical, mystical, modern-day Cirque du Soleil, but Chinese acrobatics emerged as an indigenous folk art more than 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty. Members of the National Acrobats of China train at Taipei's Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy, which practices ancient teaching methods to preserve Chinese and Taiwanese traditions.

"The performers go to school for maybe eight years," Lo said, studying acrobatics, drama and dancing. "Then they come to the group."

The academy was founded as a private school in 1957 and nationalized 11 years later. The company is fully funded by the government and performs about 200 shows a year in Taiwan, said Lo, whose job includes adding and deleting numbers from the program.

For this tour, he reinstated a segment heavy on Taiwanese martial arts that comes midway through a number likely to be familiar to American audiences: "Hua Mulan." Like the Disney movie with a similar name, it retells the Chinese legend of a young woman who goes to war to protect her ailing father from conscription.

"We show her home life first," Lo said, "which involves women balancing spinning plates on sticks. Then, the soldiers come to try to take her father. She goes in his place and learns to be a soldier, which involves the traditional Taiwanese martial arts, called wu shu."

The choreographed display includes hand-to-hand combat and fights with knives, swords and pitchforks.

"The third part of the piece is like a battle, but it's done with bicycles and people stacking themselves on bicycles."

Lo, 49, was born in Shanghai and trained at a mainland China acrobatic academy. He's performed comedy and magic, also part of traditional culture, on stage and on television throughout Asia. He was also co-director of another acrobatic troupe for six years before joining the National Acrobats of China in 1991.

Mesmerized by acrobatics since childhood, he calls the craft his "life" yet jokes that he does it today for the money. He doesn't joke about his pleasure at performing in America.

"American audiences have a very big heart," he said. "I can see it in their faces."

* The National Acrobats of China will open Thursday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. Also 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $22-$37. (800) 300-4345.

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