A ‘Transference of Joy’ as the Peking Acrobats Return to Popejoy Hall
By Lisa Barrow
It must be an exceptional quality that brings The Peking Acrobats to Albuquerque’s Popejoy Hall on January 20th for their fourth consecutive year of body-bending spectacle. After all, to accommodate everything from big-name Broadway shows to world-class dance troupes, a venue’s got to be selective.
But the Peking Acrobats’ astonishing display of aerial stunts, feats, and sheer athletic prowess has established it as a favorite with Albuquerque audiences. “Every time we bring them, people rush to get tickets to this show,” says Terry Davis, marketing director at Popejoy. “We’ve had one show we’ve done every year for the past fourteen called Mariachi Christmas, but I can’t think of any other shows where we’ve brought back literally that show from year to year.”
There’s good reason for that popularity: Employing highly-trained athletes and artists from all over China who specialize in varieties of contortionism, juggling and body balancing, the troupe puts a remarkable panoply of skill on display. The acrobats tumble, somersault, and commit other feats of precision gymnastics while interacting with traditional props on beautiful sets rich with Chinese silk and brocade. As each act unfolds, flowing from one performer to the next, audiences can expect to see acrobats engage in daring, often breathtaking stunts that appear to defy both gravity and human physiology. The extravaganza is accompanied by live music and lighting effects. The show reveals “what the human body can do beyond its normal expectations,” says Davis, providing “an incredible number of options we haven’t seen before.”
Since their inception in 1986, such showmanship has made the troupe highly sought after in the U.S., Canada and Central America. They’re perhaps most widely known for their appearance in the 2001 movie Ocean’s 11. The film and its sequels also feature troupe alumnus Shaobo Qin. In 1999, the Peking Acrobats captured a world record when they stacked six people onto six chairs in a 21-foot chair tower on the Guinness World Records: Primetime show.
With decades of appearances in public and on television, the troupe works continuously to update their act. Fresh material is added every year under the leadership of artistic director Ken Hai, who regularly recruits new talent from China’s many schools of acrobatics. Though loathe to describe recent innovations to the show in detail, co-producer Cynthia Dike-Hughes is especially excited about what she describes as a “beautiful and artistic” equilibrium act in which two performers balance off each other onstage. To those who may have seen the Peking Acrobats perform in the past, she hopes to convey the message, “You haven’t seen this show!”
Besides superb acrobatics, Dike-Hughes says that the show has invested in “21st-century bells and whistles,” including “spectacular” moving lights and hazers that create fog effects. Despite the modern-day special effects wizardry, however, the Peking Acrobats pride themselves on faithfully continuing a 2000-year-old tradition. Their intent is to allow the ancient art form of Chinese acrobatics to speak for itself without the imposition of storylines or other artificial, “commercially packaged” derivations, says Dike-Hughes. She describes herself and co-producer Don Hughes as “purists” who “work hard to remain true to Chinese culture.”
In keeping with this mission, musicians are a key part of the 30-person troupe. The acrobatic spectacle is enhanced with traditional Chinese instruments such as the yang qin, reminiscent of a hammered dulcimer, and the er hu, a two-stringed instrument played with a bow. The musicians even come onstage during certain parts of the show, a demonstration of their importance that sets the Peking Acrobats apart from other Chinese acrobatics shows, according to Dike-Hughes.
Two thousand years of culture, tradition, and expertise come surprisingly cheap for Albuquerque audiences. Tickets start at $20, making it possible for even a family of four to attend affordably. Terry Davis encourages families to bring children to the evening performance at Popejoy Hall, since the next day is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a school holiday. Cynthia Dike-Hughes is also enthusiastic about the show’s popularity with children. Part of the troupe’s mission, she says, consists in “cultivating our audiences of the future...they go and have a fantastic time and remember, and [eventually] bring their own kids.” The show will certainly also appeal to adults, concert-goers and fans of classical and world music.
During a performance, there’s a “transference of joy from performers to audience,” says Dike-Hughes. “When you see what these performers are capable of, and you know how hard they work…it’s really awe inspiring to see what they can do.” The Albuquerque public will have just two chances in 2013 to determine whether she’s right.
Musical Instruments used in The Peking Acrobats Production
Yang Qin: (pron., yung CHIN) This instrument originates from Western Asia and was introduced into China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD). Two bamboo sticks are used to hit strings strung in pairs thus producing a high and tinkling timbre in its top registers, a soft and beautiful tone in the middle and a strong rich sound in the lower registers. The Yang Qin is most closely associated with the hammered dulcimer in western instrumentation.
Pipa: (pron., PEE pah) This instrument is one of the oldest and well-known instruments in the traditional Chinese orchestra with 2,000 years of history. It is rich in expression and has diverse performing techniques. The Pipa is one of the most symbolic Chinese musical instruments. As a stringed instrument, the Pipa is most similar to the lute in western instrumentation.
Er Hu: (pron., AHR hoo) This bowed instrument became popular in China during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD). The Er Hu is one of the most widely used bowed instruments in China, and its tone is mellow and bright. Played with a variety of techniques, it is now extremely popular for both solo and orchestral performances. The instrument has two strings and is played with the bow clasped between them. The sound box is covered by snakeskin which gives the instrument its distinctive tonal color.
Dizhi: (pron., dee ZHEE) This wind instrument is the Chinese version of a western flute traditionally made of bamboo (occasionally of wood). It is believed to have been brought in from Tibet during the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), and since then it has been used over the past 2,000 years in China. The Dizhi is perhaps the most popular Chinese wind instrument used in the orchestra. Often Dizhi players use several flutes for different keys. Note that there may be TWO Dizhi players in our orchestra.
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