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Life on the flipside

Updated: 2014-05-16 07:54
By Zhao Xu ( China Daily Africa)

 Life on the flipside

Zhao Wanting does a headstand supported only by her teeth. Photos by Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

 Life on the flipside

The Guangzhou Acrobatic Troupe, which recruits students from around the country, is arguably China's best.

 Life on the flipside

Wu Zhengdan on the shoulder of her husband and performance partner Wei Baohua in their groundbreaking Swan of the Orient, which blends acrobatics and ballet. Provided to China Daily

 Life on the flipside

Perfection was what Zhang Quan and Zhao Li aimed for when they practiced for the annual Spring Festival TV Gala last year. Provided to China Daily

 Life on the flipside

Fledgling acrobats of the Guangzhou Acrobatic Troupe repeat the same routines day after day. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

Chinese acrobats exist in a world unto themselves

Zhao Wanting had no idea where Guangzhou was when her parents asked if she wanted to live there. But that didn't matter. She was going, no matter what. A year and a half has passed since the palpably shy 12-year-old relocated to the port city, known for its rapid development and mass of migrant workers. But the girl has had little opportunity to sample the city's metropolitan offerings. Upon arrival she was ushered directly into a strange new world in which she is meant to grow and, hopefully, prosper. It's a world that bears little resemblance to the one she knew in her rural village in Northeast China, where "mom runs a small eatery and dad raises goats". Yet it's also alienated from big city life.

Rather, it's a world unto itself - that is, the world of acrobatics.

It's a life dictated by monotony. Zhao and her fellow students repeat the same routines day after day.

But they have something to look forward to, and someone to look up to.

Despite their humble beginnings, they have become members of the Guangzhou Acrobatic Troupe, arguably the country's best.

In February last year, two troupe members, Zhang Quan, then 28, and Zhao Li, then 24, dazzled a national audience when they performed on the annual Spring Festival TV gala, hosted and broadcast by the country's central television station and watched by most Chinese.

They became overnight sensations.

And the duo turned a longstanding dream into reality - making acrobatics a fixture of the annual extravaganza.

"The event featured an equally indelible pair this year," Zhang says.

"It's a dream come true for us. My mother said I made her proud. She didn't cry (then) but she did when she saw me train for the first time a long time ago."

Zhang has trained for 23 years, starting from when he was 6.

He performed with various local troupes in his native Anhui province before going to Guangzhou in 2001. He has undergone everything his mother hoped and feared - success and injuries. While injuries can end a career, the pressure to stand out in such a competitive field pushes performers to take risks.

Yet acrobat Wang Sen, 21, believes the greatest challenge is posed by one's own ambitions.

"Nobody should be blamed for being ambitious," he says.

"But when your job involves doing multiple somersaults on a horizontal pole high above the ground, you've got to make sure that drive or ego, or whatever you call it, doesn't overrule judgment.

"In terms of physical capability, it would usually take at least three years for an acrobat to make a real breakthrough. There's always the next step. Consequently, we learn the essence of perseverance."

But tension is still bound to surface, especially when a big show is approaching, says Zhao, whose five-year partnership with Zhang, which culminated in their television appearance last year, is marked with memorable advancements and equally memorable conflicts.

"We fought vehemently over the slightest flaws we thought might blemish our show. We turned to rehearsal footage a colleague had recorded on his phone for evidence against each other," she says, laughing.

"It was crazy. But, trust me, at the end of the day, our shared goal always pulls us back together."

Zhao is dating a retired Olympic gold-winning diver she met through a friend.

Wang says it's rare for acrobats who work together onstage to become romantically involved.

"It's not encouraged in our troupe - understandably so," he says.

"What if they break up? Will emotions carry over into their work and make partnering onstage impossible?

"If so, that inflicts much collateral damage on the troupe itself, given it takes two or three years to cultivate a program. An acrobat can't afford to be lovelorn. Any distraction can cause permanent regret."

But while dating may not be easy, there's plenty of love in acrobats' lives.

Wang remembers the first time he saw his name on the list of acrobats the troupe was sending to tour overseas.

"I instantly felt dizzy," he says.

"It was like: 'Wow! Me? Going abroad? Taking a flight?'

"I was standing on top of the world. I literally felt so. One minute before that I was a mere 10-year-old trying to hide a half-eaten chocolate bar from a 'big brother' in the troupe, who'd been asked to keep an eye on my weight - you have to be mindful of it when you're standing on somebody's shoulders."

Wang recalls constantly checking his pockets for his passport to make sure he still had it during the 15-hour flight to Europe.

What awaited him was something he had never imagined: packed houses, enraptured audiences, media interviews and autograph requests.

"That's when I realized I had to practice a bit on my less-than-presentable handwriting," Wang says, abashedly.

"Everywhere we went, we were invited to perform at the most esteemed venues - the Kremlin in Moscow, Covent Garden in London. That says a lot about how they thought of us as artists."

Yes, artist - that is what Wu Zhengdan, 33, insisted on being called when she imagined herself as the proud "Swan of the Orient" in the namesake performance.

Pirouetting on the shoulder of her longtime stage partner and husband Wei Baohua, who is 10 years her senior, Wu captured the imagination of her audience and catapulted it to a new horizon, where acrobatics meets ballet.

"I was hit by the idea back in 1998, and I still remember vividly how I had struggled to stand on pointe after first slipping into a pair of ballet shoes," Wu says.

"By introducing the elegance and storytelling of ballet to acrobatics, we intended to cast the age-old art in a new, and probably more poetic, light."

Wu and her husband, one of only two couples in the troupe, worked hard on this.

"I started by doing pirouettes and arabesques on his back, and from there I went on to alight on his shoulder, his deltoids and ultimately the top of his head," Wu says.

"For him, my feet, which were constantly bleeding, had become de facto meat grinders. With every turn, the tips of my delicate shoes bored deeper and deeper into his shoulder until it turned into a big unsightly sore. But none of that pain - only beauty - showed in what we finally presented."

But many Chinese acrobats find the idea of enshrining beauty disturbing or even provocative, the Guangzhou troupe's director Li Yaping says.

"There has always been this deeply entrenched view that the core value of acrobatics lies with its shock factor. In other words, the more jaw-dropping, the better," says Li, 45, who was a budding gymnast before joining the troupe in 1985.

"This 'puritanical' view has not only prevented acrobatics from absorbing outside influences but also reinforced people's perception of it as being a cruel, twisted form of art - if the word art can still be used."

Wei, who is also the troupe's deputy director, agrees.

"There's only a limited number of things one can do with his body, however hard he has challenged himself," says Wei, who endured the unendurable to reach this conclusion.

"At the annual Monte Carlo International Acrobatic Competition, an event dubbed the Oscars of the acrobatic world, our Swan of the Orient won the highest prize in 2002. This, I believe, has revealed the future for all of us, that the one thing we've spent our lives serving should be elevated to the status of true art. All true art exacts a price on its practitioners and at the same time embraces and celebrates humanity."

Three of the troupe's roughly 100 acrobats are younger than 13.

They have been taken under the wing of Zhao Yuqin, 61. She has stuck with the troupe for nearly three decades and trained six generations of acrobats.

She is known for her strong will. Zhao once brought her niece to Guangzhou from her hometown over 1,000 kilometers away and made her a child star and international prize-winning acrobat.

"I used to be very strict, especially with my niece. But these days, I'm much softer and never push these kids too hard. Maybe I'm getting old," she says, sighing.

"Now I just want the best for all of them, as people as well as acrobats."

As Zhao speaks, Zhao Wan-ting, one of her favorite students, practices a stunt first achieved by Zhao's niece about two decades ago, biting a bar to do a headstand supported only by her teeth. Her face reddens.

Wang says: "Most of us didn't choose acrobatics. Acrobatics chose us."

Twists of fate pushed many of the country's estimated 300,000 acrobats into the trade.

Financial woes partly caused Wang's mother to leave home when he was 4.

She never returned. He was brought up by his fraternal aunt, who decided acrobatics was his best hope.

Wang believes she was right.

"All my family - my dad, my aunt and my grandma - have seen me perform on TV.

"I wish Mom could someday do the same. Destiny pushed but didn't overpower me. Instead, I turned around and seized it."


(China Daily Africa Weekly 05/16/2014 page24)

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