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The acrobat's ancient art Chinese troupe still dazzles with it

By David Sterritt / November 17, 1980



New York

The acrobat's and juggler's art has been thrilling Easterners and Westerners alike for longer than either hemisphere can remember. And the "Acrobats of Canton," a family show in the fullest sense, has action for the young and dignified beauty for the old.

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The first surprise about the troupe -- also called the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China -- is that their art has little to do with the kind of vaudeville we associate with the old Ed Sullivan Show, or even the old Radio City Music Hall.

Oh, they do all the usual tricks: balancing on chairs, twirling plates on sticks, turning somersaults in the air. Normally, though, we think of these stunts as boisterous, unsubtle entertainments.

By contrast, the Guangdong company treats them as something very close to dance. Even at their liveliest moments, there is a delicacy and a gracefulness to their work -- a refinement that our own circus tumblers rarely seem to care about.

These qualities were visible throughout the recent Guangdong show at Radio City Music Hall, and will be in evidence as the troupe continues its first United States tour with engagements in several states from Kentucky to California, concluding on Dec. 21.

Part of the Guangdong magic springs from the beauty of the stage settings and music that accompany the various acts. The orchestra sounds quintessentially Chinese with its sharply textured, engagingly ornamented melodies and harmonies. Similarly, the backgrounds have the pastel colorings and precisely asymmetrical compositions we associate with Chinese painting, and the costumes stand out smartly with their brighter and deeper shades.

This may sound like secondary stuff, but the whispered rightnessm of these trappings is a key element of the show's atmosphere. And that atmosphere, rather than the individual stunts, is what the evening is ultimately all about.

I began to sense the special attraction of the Guangdong art during an early number simply titled "Plate Spinning." On the surface, it's an old gag, familiar from a h undred circus acts: a woman moves through various poses and positions while balancing several spinning plates on long sticks.

When she is joined by sundry companions, however, the stunt takes on an almost ritualistic quality that is enhanced by the stateliness of the movements. Delicate music, a gossamer setting, and the gentle dignity of the performers all combine to produce a sense of calm, unearthly beauty.

Of course, the evening isn't allm so refined. This is a fun show, and the Guangdong troupe rarely forgets that part of it. "The Happy Cooks," for example , juggle up a storm and whirl merrily through the ancient routine where a trickster twirls plates on a wooden bench, racing around to keep them all going at the same time. More fast action is offered by acts of "Hoop Diving," "High Pole Acrobats," and the astonishing "Wu Shu Acrobats," who leap onto, over, past , and around each other with a speed and skill that can only be described as bewildering.

There are also novelty acts that are hard to describe at all. "the Lion Dance" is performed by acrobats inside a giant stuffed animal. In "Little Girl, " a youngster twists her body into a human Moebius strip while balancing goblets on her feet. And there's a fiery "Dragon Dance," with a Day-Glo monster swirled through the air by a mob of invisible performers, behind of dizzyingly lighted scrim. (This last is a frenetic yet formally rigorous act. An American avant-gardist, such as Robert Wilson with his own interest in dance and internationalism, might take note.)

Along with these phenomenal feats and astounding acts, as a circus showman might call them, are a few flubs -- which actually enrich the evening, as if proving its authenticity. A bit of prestidigitation with a jug of liquid, for example, seems pointless and unfunny. There were also occasional missteps on the night I saw the show -- a knocked-over hoop, a plate fallen from its balancing stick. And there were a few moments when I wondered whether the rigidly precise choreography was a natural metaphor for the alleged conformity of today's Chinese society -- until I remembered the Music Hall's own Rockettes, with their own faceless monotomy.

Though a few of the Guangdong gambits faltered, their evening is mostly magical. May the Guangdong company visit us frequently in the future.