Beijing Acrobatic Troupe
By Dominique Jando
The People's Republic of China is a multi-national country, an ancient civilization with a long history and a rich and brilliant culture. Over several millennia, its peoples have created many forms of performing arts, each of them characterized by a host of schools and styles. They have followed, for centuries, a linear evolution aimed towards the extreme refinement of the skills involved in a particular art form.
Although China started contacts with non-Asian countries more than two thousand years ago, foreign influences were absorbed and rendered with a Chinese flavor for the sole benefitSpecial performance whose entire profit went to a performer; the number of benefits a performer was offered (usually one, but sometimes more for a star performer during a long engagement) was stipulated in his contract. Benefits disappeared in the early twentieth century. of that evolution. In this peculiarity lies the most important difference between Chinese and Western cultural traditions: The latter is more organic and open to new components, while the Chinese tradition aims towards the perfection of already known elements, and the integration of new elements into an existing mold.
The Chinese Acrobatic Theater followed the same development pattern. Whereas European and American circuses were in a constant search for novelties and new techniques (driven in part by commercial needs, especially in the United States), Chinese acrobats limited their repertoire (although it came to include over two hundred different specialties—which is quite a number in any respect), but they constantly improved their presentation and increased the level of difficulty of the tricks involved, always striving to reach an elusive perfection.
The Show of One Hundred Skills
Historical records, carvings and mural paintings in tombs and grottos (such as the brick carvings discovered in the Han Dynasty tomb of Chengdu, in the Szechuan province) date the origins of Chinese Acrobatics more than two thousands years ago, during the Warring States period. They developed mostly during the Qin and Huan Dynasties (221 B.C.-230 A.D.) and reached a remarkable level of quality and refinement during the Western Huan Dynasty, evolving from a simple exhibition of skills into a performing art, with a rich and eclectic repertory including tumbling, balancing, plate spinning, pole balancing, rope dancing, etc. This acrobatic performance was known as The Show of One Hundred Skills.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government, following its policy of "Let a hundred flowers blossom and weed through the old to bring forth the new," brought about a spectacular renaissance of the Acrobatic Theater. Acrobatic troupes were created in each province and every major city, and were given their own theaters. The teaching was (and still is) done within the troupe, old performers training the new generation. These troupes experienced a serious setback during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), but only to see their vitality soaring afterward.
The Beijing Acrobatic Troupe was created in 1957 in Tianqiao, a district of Beijing that is sometimes said to be the birthplace of Chinese acrobatics. The troupe was, until the late 1980s, performing in the overwhelming shadow of Beijing’s premier acrobatic troupe, the New China Troupe. But in the last decade of the twentieth century, it started taking off on its own.
The Beijing Acrobatic Troupe Today
In 1995, the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe presented a diabolo act that won a Gold Medal at Paris’s Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. The following year, this act was presented at Cirque du Soleil—thus beginning a long association with the Canadian circus. The troupe has received many awards in Chinese acrobatic competitions, and was awarded the first prize at Moscow’s 3rd International Circus Arts Festival in 2007 for its remarkable Chinese Pole act, which was also feratured at Circus Krone in Munich in 2011.
The Beijing Acrobatic Troupe has over 150 performers and apprentices, who train in a compound in the Xuanwu District of Beijing, where they have a gymnasium, offices, workshops, and living quarters for the members of the troupe. They perform all-year round in the historic, century-old Tianqiao Acrobatics Theater.