Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe

From Circopedia

Chinese Acrobatics

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 form 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 benefit 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 Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe, located in the old imperial capital of Nanjing (which was also the Capital of the Republic of China before the Communist revolution), was created in 1957. It quickly became a major acrobatic troupe, and toured extensively in Australia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. It was featured for the first time in a Western circus show with Circus Knie, in Switzerland, in 1984. Its second association with a Western circus was in 1988-1989 with the Big Apple Circus, which also marked its first appearance in the United States.

The Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe Today

In the mid-1990s, following the opening of China to the Western world, the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe began to adopt the new trends then permeating the Chinese Acrobatic Theater performances—inspired to a large extent by the style developed by the Canadian Cirque du Soleil, which had begun to use Chinese acrobats in its shows. Although Chinese specialty acts remained basically the same—albeit with an ever-increasing degree of difficulty—their presentation became included in lavishly staged productions, with costumes and music that took their distances from the old Chinese tradition. The Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe production of Carnival Dream, for instance, made a successful international tour in 2009.

Over the years, the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe has won many national and international awards, including a Gold Medal at Paris’s Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in 1986 with the juggling act of The Qian Brothers, a Silver Lion at the third annual Chinese National Acrobatic Competition, and a Gold Lion at the Fourth Wuqiao International Acrobatic Festival in 1993.

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