Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Review of Cirque Chinois

On October 24, we went to see the National Circus of the People's Republic of China: Cirque Chinois at the Krannert Center.  I was delighted by the chance to see, in person, a bunch of entertainment types that I had only read about before, or seen on television, or seen descended styles of.  While done with modern materials, some of these acts have roots going back for centuries.  The props, costumes, and presentations reflected that.  I have to say that I favor a classic style in costuming: outfits should match the theme, and be the same unless there's a variation based on different roles in the performance.  I find the contemporary trend towards unmatched costumes that resemble street clothes to be distracting and less aesthetically appealing.  Another interesting point that spanned multiple acts was that many of them had a single authority figure standing at the back, an interesting manifestation of the structured nature of Chinese society.  They tended toward minimal movement but truly spectacular costumes.  Also the energy handling was good overall, though stronger in some acts than others.

The "Opening Ceremony" brought out dancers in different costumes inspired by nature.  I was most taken with the birds: a pair of large wooden puppets worn overhead, with flapping wings operated by dancers; and another pair of dancers wearing fluttery silken wings under their arms.  The costumes worn by people portraying tufts of grass were made of heavily embroidered silk: so heavy that the fabric was stiff and rustling, barely moving around them, gorgeous to look at.

"Group Contortion by Girls" was described in the program as 'sculptures' and it really drew on that artistic tradition, creating beautiful shapes with human bodies as the medium.  The power and precision were quite impressive.  This was definitely one of the best contortionist shows that I've seen.  Oh, and for those of you who complain about "broken-backed women" in comics?  It is perfectly possible for a woman to fold herself in half backwards at the waist.  It's just that only a tiny percentage of the human population can actually do that.  Contortion is a demonstration of the balance between nature and nurture, because it relies on the fact that a few people have extra stretchy body parts, subsequently shaped into great skill through dedicated training.  So show me your beautiful genes and your amazing techniques.  I will applaud.

"Flying Meteors" used ropes with half-dome weights on the ends, spun and twirled and flung in the air.  It combined a knowledge of physics -- and those weights must have been pretty heavy to get as much momentum, loft, and bounce as they did -- and martial arts techniques.  I recognized a few moves similar to those used with two-part and three-part staff weapons, along with rope-specific ones such as used by fire spinners.  The dancers' ability to throw those things in the air and then tumble around before catching them was quite impressive.

"Aerial Silk" was a lovely duet quite different from the western style of silk dancing.  It used a two-part silk prop, half pink and half blue.  I really liked the color contrast, which was echoed in the costumes.  The woman wore a pink costume with curved designs, and the man wore a blue to purple costume with angular designs.  They danced a romance together, not about passion, but a very soft and sublime rendition that evoked the mental and spiritual aspects of love.  Very delicate, elegant, floating stuff rather than the powerful swoops and tumbles that characterize most aerial silk work I've seen before.  They really called out the floating, breathy quality of silk.  I'm not at all surprised that Chinese performers got a little something extra out of silk; it's one of the characteristic media of the culture.

"Dance -- Guanyin's Thousand Hands"  honored the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, also known as Kwannon or Kuan Yin.  She is the goddess of compassion who saves people from misery.  This dance featured girls dressed in white costumes with brilliant silver spangles, feathered headdresses, and metallic extensions on their fingers.  Many of the sequences had them lined up so that only the first dancer was fully visible, the others only showing their arms, in the style of some Asian and Indian iconography that shows spiritual figures with many arms.  Most of the dance focused on moving fingers, hands, and arms in gracefully swooping birdlike motions.  It really made an excellent visual representation of a goddess who can fly around, everywhere at once, reaching out to people.  Very sublime energy.  Buddhist and Pagan dance fans should catch this performance if possible; it's one of the better representations of this goddess that I've seen in any format.

"Diving Through Rings" featured a vertical stack of plastic hoops that people dove and tumbled through.  They had some misses -- I suspect the first one, which knocked one of the rings loose, may have been deliberate to demonstrate that the props weren't firmly connected.  These acrobats got some amazing height on some of their jumps, and they weren't using a springboard, just leg muscles.

"Faces Change" featured a traditional stage magic performance from Chinese Tradition.  The magician switched rapidly through a series of theatrical masks.  I have seen this done better by a contemporary western performer, but I've always wanted to see a version from the original Chinese tradition.  So I'm happy to check that off my list.  In general, the acrobatic acts reached a higher level of excellence than some of the other cultural variety acts, but the overall effect was entertaining and nothing was poorly done.

"Aerial Rings" actually used only one large hoop in the air, on which acrobats formed pleasing shapes with their bodies.  On the floor were a bunch more dancers.  The costumes in this set were all gold.  the acrobats wore skintight outfits.  There were several people in voluminous gold cloaks, each paired with another dancer in skintight gold, connected by six gleaming ribbons at wrists, ankles, and both sides of the waist.  I've never seen ribbon dancing like that before, spooling out and drawing in ribbons between two people.  You couldn't do  that with just one dancer, the way loose ribbon dancing is usually done.  It was lovely, and it deserved its own act, not being the floorshow when most people were watching the hoop dancing above.  I was annoyed to miss the aerial ring work, but I did in fact miss most of that, because I've seen that before and the ribbon dance was new.  This typified a flaw that recurred in several other acts, and was mentioned by other viewers, that parts of the acts distracted from each other.  It's a common problem in circus performers; this branch of entertainment is so devoted to multitasking that it annoys those of us who like to be able to give each act our full attention.

"Kung Fu" was more of a circus act than a martial arts performance, and I've seen better of the latter.  But the lion dance was new to me: two pairs of dancers in elaborate Chinese lion costumes, working in tandem to animate the lion.  I'm reminded of team puppetry.  They looked particularly nifty with the lions sitting on their haunches at the front of the stage, like temple guardians.  This is classic Chinese symbolism of protection and blessing.  Another interesting feature was that all the weapons -- spear, swords, sticks, etc. -- were flexible.  I don't know if the swords were metal or mylar or what, but I could hear  them bending and shimmering in the dance.  So that added a whole new quality that would be great fun for choreographers to play with further.

There was a 20-minute intermission between the two halves of the show.

"Plate Spinning" went in a substantially different direction than I expected.  This is another one where I've seen some examples before, and wanted to see the original tradition.  The dancers wore yellow and blue costumes, and the plates were green, with aqua backlighting on the stage.  It created a beautifully aquatic environment; the dancers looked like underwater plants.  They came out on the stage with each hand spinning four plates.  And that's all they ever did with those plates: keep them spinning and not drop any.  There were none of the tosses, passes, or other plate-based tricks I'm used to seeing from the western juggling tradition.  However, they did a great deal more dancing, tumbling, and acrobatics while keeping all their plates in motion.  So the focus of the dance was totally different, and I won't take off points because it was something other than I expected.  It was quite well done for its style.  I just happen to find the plate-based juggling style more appealing personally.

"The Great Teeterboard" was visually spectacular.  The acrobats came out in bold crimson costumes with sharp, flared shoulders.  They had a tower to climb up and a teeterboard to land on or fly up from.  This is another classic Chinese performance, and I recognized several of the moves they did.  I was not, however, expecting one guy to come out and do his backflip while wearing stilts,  nor for the next even crazier acrobat to do the same thing on just one stilt.   Those two had ninja-rank balance.  This act also included the traditional move of lofting someone into a chair held high off the ground by another performer -- I was really pleased to see that in person.  If I had to name a favorite act, I'd pick this one.

"Single-Handstanding Girl" was poorly named.  First to appear were a pair of men, and I was looking for something else; I think I'd have enjoyed them more if they had come second or had their own act.  They were dressed in skintight gold, with a large eye on the chest, and they were quite powerful moving their bodies into sculptural shapes.  They did a really good hands-free shoulderstand.  Then the girl showed up in the skintight scarlet with silver sequined swirls, and indeed did some beautifully flowing contortionist moves while balanced on one hand.  Either hand: she hopped back and forth several times.  So if you like acrobatics based on slow-motion power and precision, this is a good example.

Next was supposed to be "Aerial Rope," which for some reason didn't happen.  Instead they had a short clown act involving large blue and yellow balls.  That one wasn't particularly eye-catching.

"Diabolo" and "Straw Hat Juggling" are listed separately but functioned as one act.  First the women came out, dressed in short red and gold outfits with jester-curled hats, using the diabolo tool which is a sort of dumbbell that gets tossed on a short rope.  They had great control, flinging the things back and forth across the stage and tumbling around to catch them again.  The men came out, dressed in green and gold, so the costumes contrasted very nicely.  Each of them had three straw hats, shaped almost like cowboy hats, which they juggled individually and collectively.  The two halves of the act, men and women, swapped stage several times and were often sharing it together, weaving in and out of each other.  It was a very good composite, ensemble feature.

"Magic" brought back the same magician from earlier, this time in a considerably more skillful routine.  About half of it involved producing, manipulating, and vanishing various fans of cards and individual cards -- and a sizable amount of that was done with his sleeves rolled up.  It was less about surprise than about dexterity, but really quite apt dexterity with very precise and snappy gestures.  The other segment of this act was more production and vanishing with little white balls; harder to see from a distance, but still pretty cool.

"Balancing Bowls on Head" was another blend of dance, acrobatics, and contortionism.  A couple of the girls balanced bowls on their heads or feet.  It's a tricky skill, and was well done.  Again, I've seen people do more with the props but not so much with the tumbling and twisting.  Not dropping stuff while turning yourself into a pretzel is a skill unto itself.

"Transition: Clown Act" was a fake knife throwing act.  By fake, I mean the 'knife thrower' clown pretended to throw knives while his partner actually grabbed them and stuck them in the target.  It's the kind of funny that only works when you're watching it, because it sounds silly in description, but they had the physical acting and exaggerated body language down pat.  They really sold it.  That kind of clowning is hard  to do because it's not based on pratfalls, it's acting, only you can't use your voice much.  It's all in the body language and prop handling.

"Grand Bicycle" featured a bunch of acrobats with one or more bicycles.  The program describes it as a traditional Chinese circus act but also says it's meant to replace an animal act in non-animal circus performance.  I recognized some of the moves from horse acts.  I tend to be more impressed with animal acts, because animals have a mind of their own whereas a machine does not.  But the acrobats were quite skilled on their bicycles -- they piled twelve people on one, which I think is the most I've seen.  Better than some clown car acts, in fact.  The costumes were a delicate white and pink combination accented with dark gold, which neatly matched the dark gold bicycles.

"Finale" brought all the performers back onto the stage, starting with some of the bicycle acrobats.  Others joined them wearing costumes from the previous acts.  It wasn't fancy, just intended to show everyone off, but they did some nice passes using the groups of people in matching costumes.  It made for a respectable conclusion.

Cirque Chinois put on a fun, entertaining show in general.  It's a particularly good choice if you know something about Chinese entertainment and want to see examples in person.  It's also great as an introductory sampler if you're new to the field and want to see what some different things look like.  There's a lot of classic material in here, and it's all at least capably done, some of it excellent.  I feel that it's valuable to see traditional presentations, because then you understand more about contemporary versions, knowing where they came from and which elements changed or stayed the same.  Putting that on for a modern audience, and making it work, is not easy.  The mix of assorted forms of entertainment in this show means that it should appeal to a fairly wide audience, and not every circus has this good of a balance with no acts that suck.  Highly recommended.
Tags: entertainment, ethnic studies, review
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