The business of astonishment

When it comes to the business of astonishment, there is no one as adept as a Chinese acrobat. Seven years ago the Shenyang acrobats amazed American audiences. Now it is the turn of the Shanghai Acrobatic Theater (at the New York City Center until April 13, first stop in a national tour).

Rather than offer new revelations, this group confirms what one had always suspected about magic. The magic that is enduringly interesting is that which is within the realm of the possible. The Shanghai acrobats simply stretch that realm beyond previously understood limits.

We have all tried to balance a ball on one finger, to play with laws of gravity and balance. This is essentially what the Shanghai Acrobatic Theater is about. They juggle jars with their feet. They spin plates on poles. From a springboard they catapault high into the air; from the air they alight on obliging shoulders.They walk on their hands and dive through hoops. Or squeeze themselves through a barrel whose opening can accommodate one shoulder comfortably -- but two shoulders?

These feats are themes. Elaborate variations on these themes account for the theatricality of the show. It's not enough for a woman to keep eight plates spinning atop long, skinny poles. She keeps them going while doing a backbend. They're still turning after she's perched on top of a man's head -- and turning yet after she's climbed onto a table, which is balanced on another table, which is. . . .

It's not enough to spin a big jar on your head. What about turning your head while keeping the jar motionless? Or balancing it on its rim? As for handstands, it's interesting to balance on blocks because the blocks themselves must be balanced just so. But how much more interesting to remove the blocks one by one while still in a handstand.

The acrobats' sense of play is extraordinary, and with playfulness comes the kind of excess that makes one giggle in delight. Excess becomes an aesthetic and a source of suspense.

How far can theme and variations go? Perhaps the ultimate is reached by the gentleman whose nose becomes a trunk of a great tree made of stemware and lanterns. Ever so carefully he builds this construct on the tip of his nose, balancing each tier of paraphernalia on a pane of glass. Meanwhile, you are wondering how he can balance one glass on his nose, let alone several layers of them.And just when you're sure he's reached the peak of accomplishment, you learn that the dismantling of the tree is even more of a delicate operation.

"Even more" is the key concept of the Shanghai Acrobatic Theater. The sure and steady pace by which the acrobats layer their cake provides an easily digestible rhythm. Their exactitude of gesture offers a sparkling clarity of vision. When they flub a stunt, which happens, they calmly readjust a prop or their own timing and do the stunt again. It comes out right, and one can see why.

In other words, these acrobats aren't out to deceive or mystify. They put magic on a human scale, and that is their power.

The Shanghai Acrobatic Theater will appear in East Coast cities through May 4 , touch down in Chicago and Minneapolis, and conclude its first American tour in San Francisco, June 3-22.

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