The Chinese contortionists shatter brains
THE SANTA CLARA
February 4, 2016
Children give parents an excuse to go to cool stuff. With their kin in tow, adults can attend kid’s shows, hiding their own glee under the guise of introducing their child to culture. I don’t have a kid. But I like entertainment marketed towards them, so I should consider babysitting since I felt mildly creepy at the Flint Center last Sunday when I sat alone in the center of a sea of chattering eight-year-olds whose parents had brought them to see the Peking Acrobats.
The contorting gymnasts have been a troupe for 30 years, but their art dates back before Christ’s birth. During the Han Dynasty, these folk Chinese amusements supplanted stuffy formal court entertainment. The modern practitioners mock mortal limitations with their knuckle-gnawing exercises in anti-gravity.
They unfurl into handstands, inverted splits and alphabet arrangements with the natural, deliberate pace of a rose blooming during a Planet Earth special. They blend courtly pomp and slapstick humor, switching from traditional theatrics to butt jokes like Shakespeare playing to both royalty and groundlings. Their compact bodies whirl through calligraphic patterns then flip with the intensity of a car plummeting down a ravine. They glide through the air like show dolphins and land like daffodil fronds on a windless day.
The show began with golden lions—human duos clad in shaggy costumes topped with bug-eyed heads that gesticulated like jaunty Muppets. After some frolicking, two of the gentle “beasts” buried their faces into each other’s necks, stood together atop a large red ball and, somehow, walked it with tiny steps across a ten-foot seesaw.
Then, Qin Shabo, the Amazing Yen of the “Ocean’s” trilogy, entered accompanied by a clown clad in baggy, canary pajamas. The Hollywood “grease man” squeezed through a pizza-wide tube in just about every possible way. He touched his toes and squirmed horizontally through face-first, then shimmied back in the other direction. Then he got duped by his mischievous partner who plopped the tube on his backside, making him look like a chimney-shelled snail. But—good sport that he is—Qin halfed himself, wriggled against gravity and the limitations of human flexibility and emerged from the upright end, derriere-first. The clown reacted exactly as you would expect and brought the house down with giggles.
Then a battalion of tai-chi practitioners bounded out clad in sharp orange jumpsuits. Two of them bent a metal pole into a ‘U’ by placing it in their clavicle crevice and charging at each other. Another entered a monastic calm as an assistant stacked four regulation bricks upon his head before a third performer smacked a sledgehammer into the noggin-topping mini-tower, sending a spray of clay pieces. The unflapped meditator rose, apparently nonconcussed.
Just before intermission, came the “most scariest” portion of the show, according to my seat neighbor. Four acrobats lifted a planking man onto spears brandished by five other dudes. The first four released and the five held their daring accomplice aloft with only their barbs. Parents grimaced, exhaled and clapped, then walked into the hall to safely unleash the fidgets of their children.
After intermission, two poles lowered and they took turns backflipping between them, hanging from them like flags and sliding down them face-first, stopping inches before smushing their noses. Then, a gal bended backwards like Neo in “The Matrix” to pluck a flower from a bouquet with her teeth. She proceeded to bend her legs back over her head like a scorpion to rest her toes on the same plane as her chin.
Next, Qin Shabo reemerged with a platform topped by four wine bottles. Over the course of the most harrowing 15 minutes of my life, Qin built a tower of six white chairs—interlocked 69-style and measuring over 25 feet tall—one by one on top of the bottles. After a couple of gasp-inducing wobbles, he placed the final one and vaulted into a perfect handstand, his leotarded toes just brushing the bottom of the top curtain.
Then, he flipped the chair upside down and sat on his precarious throne with one casually propped elbow. And just for good measure, he stuck two more handstands.
My words do not do this justice. My man did HANDSTANDS on top of SIX CHAIRS that were stacked on GLASS BOTTLES. Bruh. Bruh. Bernie/Qin 2016. He completely flabbergasted me. My jaw unhinged hippo-style in awe. This ideal man blends the balance of a snow leopard with the easy strength of an orangutan.
We should all be very grateful he hasn’t become a cat-burgler. But if he did, we wouldn’t know anyway. His crime scenes would be immaculate.
Sticking with the theme, the next set of acrobats erected a diagonal pillar of increasingly small chairs and people. And as was their custom, they all flipped into handstands as well, and just shattered everyone’s conception of conventional reality.
For the finale, they played jump rope using a human as a rope, spiraled into fractal pagodas and fit 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 people onto one bicycle forming an inverted pyramid. My brain spilled out of my ears into a puddle on the ground. I guess I clapped. I don’t know. My motor functions had been reduced to babbling blurry adoration.
I looked around, seeking someone to share my awe, but all I saw were dozens of tiny amateurs clambering over the seats. I looked in the program. It said, “The Management recommends that parents advise their children that what they see on stage takes years of practice and should not be tried at home!”
So I left—glad to have watched acrobats without having to train any.
Contact John Flynn at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.