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Flash Review 2, 12-10: Circus Acts
Notwithstanding Sticking Plates, New Shanghai Astonishes

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2002 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- After a sprightly opening tableau by the company, led by two lively two-man lions, who balance precariously on platforms, the New Shanghai Circus trots out its assortment of acrobatics, tumbling, plate-spinning and foot juggling, guaranteed to wow kids and their folks. The tricks are less difficult, less extreme, and less polished than those of, say, Cirque du Soleil, the sine qua non of no-animals circuses, but watching them done on the intimate proscenium stage of the New Victory Theater adds excitement.

Accompaniment ranges from Chinese traditional music to electronic pop and disco, and colorful but slightly threadbare backdrops of pagodas and China's Great Wall lend a quaint, carnival atmosphere. Although the twenty performers all looked exhausted on opening night -- that day, they'd performed a school show at 11 a.m. -- and their presentational flourishes don't even pretend to look spontaneous, they exhibit astonishing physical coordination.

A unique aspect of this feisty troupe is that most of its performers do multiple duty. In Act One, for instance, Dan Wang balances bowls on her head, while doing a one-handed handstand atop a pole, held in the steely-strong jaw of her diminutive male partner Jun Yu. In Act Two, she twirls little carpets on both feet and one free hand, while balancing upside down on foot juggler Xue Xiang's uplifted leg, after Xue has juggled a parasol with her feet.

Sturdy little Lin Yang places a row of five candles on her head, balances her body on her elbow poked into her gut, and rotates on the extended hand, while archer Dong Wei snuffs all the flames with a single arrow shot. Then, Dong lifts her overhead, and she pops balloons with bow and arrow. Later, since her aim is clearly top-notch, Lin is one of four women kicking bowls from their feet onto their own and each others heads, while balancing on tall unicycles.

Elegantly serene Fengqin Qi deftly twirls shiny hula-hoops in different directions on all her parts, and for her finale, she catches and swirls around her torso over two dozen hoops that her two assistants bombard her with. Later, she assists the strongman.

Many of the artists seem quite young; their stage manner is cordial, but their smiles are reticent, if not downright strained. Perhaps that's cultural, but nervous glances into the wings when they bobble a trick imply that there might be a taskmaster, egging them to persevere through fear and fatigue.

A couple of the Act One numbers are tentative: a plate-spinner loses it, and her no-longer-spinning plates don't crash to the floor, but hang limply from their sticks; they're apparently attached. Oops! And transitions, pallid jetes and half-baked postures, put one in mind of ballet school recitals -- earnest but amateurish. But stick with it: seven agile acrobats dive repeatedly through stacked hoops in gravity-defying front and back flips and stack themselves in complex formations, bringing Act One to a rousing close.

Act Two continues to rev up the action with the aforementioned unicycles and umbrella foot juggling. Limber Zhenhua Luo arches herself into pretzel backbends, while balancing five lighted candelabra on her head, feet, and hands. Agile men bind hanging leather straps around their wrists, clamber up, then plummet inches from the floor. The finale, Bike Tricks, starts with Zhimin Zhao, who sits on the upended front wheel and pedals, turning his bike into a unicycle, and ends with Qinghua Kou's two-wheeler circling the stage with half the cast fanned out from his front, back, and sides.

But before that, the climax of the show is carried on the powerful shoulders of the company's senior member, strongman Xiangdong Lu. His eyes twinkle above heavily rouged cheeks, a la Chinese Opera makeup, and his little hop-stepping and well-timed mugging at the audience shows the young'uns in the cast the old-fashioned showmanship, to which they might aspire.

With youthful aplomb, this fifty-plus-year-old Asian version of Jack La Lanne twirls a heavy metal battle-axe around his shoulders (it takes two of the young men to heft it). And, after an audience member tries to flex one industrial-strength longbow and can barely budge it, he manages to flex multiple ones at once, using his neck as a fulcrum. By the end of the show, the screaming audience is on its feet. The show runs through January 12. It's wholesome family fun with moments of jaw-dropping skill.

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