Great leaps around
A famous troupe from Shandong pulls out all the stops as performers create a show that excites a new audience, Chen Nan finds.
A famous troupe from Shandong pulls out all the stops as performers create a show that excites a new audience.
Over 10 years ago, Shandong Acrobatic Troupe, one of China’s best, was in trouble. Like many traditional art forms of China, acrobatics faced losing audiences, especially the younger generation.
But during the last few years, people have been flocking back to the theaters. The troupe’s director, Yao Jianguo, says more than 3,500 shows are held every year — not just domestically but worldwide.
“Acrobatics has to reinvent itself to be alive in the contemporary scene,” says Yao, who was born in Jinan, Shandong province, and has been committed to the centuries-old art form since he was 10 years old.
For his troupe, one of the best ways to preserve this iconic part of China’s national identity is to combine solid Chinese acrobatic skills with successful Western show formats, which have developed a proven fan base.
The troupe will stage a new production, titled China Goes Pop!, which blends Broadway-style music, dance, Chinese acrobatics and multimedia technology.
To produce the show, the troupe cooperated with China Arts and Entertainment Group, the first large-scale state-level arts and entertainment association founded in 2004 under China’s Ministry of Culture, and Broadway Asia Company, whose productions include Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Sound of Music and DreamWorks’ Madagascar Live.
The show will make its debut in Beijing’s Tianqiao Performing Arts Center over Aug 5-7.
The Shandong troupe was founded in 1959. Based in Jinan, it has won three top Golden Clown awards at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo.
With around 150 performers, the troupe is one of the top five among China’s nearly 200 professional acrobatic troupes. Since 2008, it has been collaborating with Western performing arts companies, such as the established Montreal company Cirque du Soleil.
In 2012, nine performers of the troupe performed at the Kodak Theater during the Academy Awards for the first time. Last December, the troupe staged a traditional Chinese drum dance acrobatic performance in Johannesburg as part of the closing ceremony of the “Year of China” in South Africa.
“Chinese acrobatic shows put an emphasis on agility, power and balance. We maintain our tradition while learning that storytelling and the portrayal of roles are also crucial to attract audiences besides colorful acrobatics and gravity-defying stunts,” says Yao.
China Goes Pop! tells the story of a heartbroken young talented artist and his pursuit of true love.
Besides practicing traditional Chinese acrobatic acts, such as contortions and cycling, 11 actors from the troupe dance and perform in Broadway style.
Meng Yan, a 29-year-old performer of the troupe, plays the second female lead in the show.
Born in Jinan and studying acrobatics since she was 10, Meng has performed in Dralion, a touring production by Cirque du Soleil, since 2010.
“It’s quite a challenge to perform in a Western production. In Chinese acrobatic shows, we focus on our moves but in the Western production, we portray the roles with emotions and interact with the audiences,” says Meng.
Marc Routh, co-founder of Broadway Asia Company and a four-time Tony Award-winning producer, says: “Chinese acrobats are some of the hardest-working performers in the world. They train from a very young age and yet are very willing and excited to take on the additional challenges that this show requires.”
As the producer of China Goes Pop!, he says that his company has been working in Asia for 20 years — bringing shows to Asia, creating shows specifically for the Asian market, and creating Asian shows to export to the world market.
“We have been working on the show ( China Goes Pop!) for 18 months. The performers have trained to add dance, acting and physical comedy skills to their acrobatic skills, which have been developed both during our rehearsal and workshop periods and during the time between these rehearsals,” he says.
Routh also says that by adding elements of Broadwaystyle storytelling as well as dance, martial arts, and physical comedy and refreshing them with contemporary pop music and exciting visuals, his team hopes to succeed in putting a spotlight on acrobatics that will appeal to a younger audience worldwide.
The Shandong Acrobatic Troupe has toured around the world and won three top Golden Clown awards at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo.
Performers rehearse for ChinaGoesPop!, the latest production by Shandong Acrobatic Troupe.