Somersault your way to love with the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe
- Kelly Apter
- 14 July 2017
This article is from 2017
China's acclaimed circus troupe will entertain Edinburgh with another high-energy and visually stunning show
As the lights go down, a ripple of excitement runs through some children sitting in the front row. It's only a dress rehearsal, but for those young trainees of Shandong Acrobatic Troupe, watching the grown-ups is a glimpse into their own future. Each trick is, quite rightly, greeted with enthusiastic applause until the performance ends and they trot, single file, back to the training centre next door. For them, and the performers on stage, being part of one of China's most acclaimed acrobatic troupes (and with 180 across the country, that's no mean feat) is a vocation you don't take on lightly.
Zhang Xu, who plays the lead female role in China Goes Pop, the troupe's production for this year's Edinburgh Fringe, was just eight years old when she began training here. Like the others, she moved away from her family to take up residence at the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe headquarters in central Jinan, and has been here ever since. 'When you start something, you should finish it,' she says, echoing the commitment all performers demonstrate on stage.
Filled with tricks and flips, clever costuming and slick dance moves, China Goes Pop is also a romance, with Zhang Xu slowly falling in love with Guo Quinlong (her real-life fiancé). And for a particular scene, performed on Chinese double silks, it's just as well he's the one she clings to. 'I'm actually afraid of heights,' she says with a smile, 'but because I do the aerial routine with Guo, I trust him completely. I know he would never let me drop, so I feel safe up there.' Then she flexes an impressive muscle on her petite arm, the result of upper body training she starts each day with, to prove it's not just him that's in complete control.
Guo joined the Shandong Troupe when he was 18, having spent ten years training elsewhere. Watching him and his colleagues fly through hoops with a speed and precision that has the audience on the edge of its seat, you can only imagine the discipline and determination that got them there. 'When I first started training, aged eight, we did somersaults every day,' he explains. 'Then we did somersaults through the hoops on the ground, and gradually we added more hoops on top of each other. Now after 20 years of training, I just look at the hoops and instinctively know how fast I need to run, and how much strength I'll need to get through them; it's like they are a part of my body.'
Hoop diving is just one of countless routines that pepper the show, including a precarious bicycle act, beautiful hand-balancing sequence, traditional mask changing with a modern twist, and some finely-honed juggling and diabolo work. You would find much of that in other Shandong Acrobatic Troupe shows: the crucial difference here is in the show's title. A pop soundtrack, contemporary set and costume design all conspire to create an East meets West feel. The stars of the show may all hail from China, but the creative team surrounding them – director, choreographer, designers – have all worked extensively in British and American theatre and television.
For Shanda Sawyer, the US co-director and choreographer, one of the most enjoyable aspects of working on the show has been helping the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe deliver a believable love story. 'That was a really exciting challenge,' she says, 'because here we have these extraordinary acrobats with such skill, but who have been trained not to show emotion. So they've had to learn how to take the audience on an emotional journey, inbetween the hair-raising hoop diving and intense acrobatic routines. And it's amazing how thirsty they are for that kind of knowledge, how open they've been to it and how much they've grown.'
Sawyer may have been amazed by the cast's transformation into romantic storytellers, but as far as Shandong Acrobatic Troupe director Yao Jianguo is concerned, adaptability and a desire to learn are key qualities for anybody entering the company. Having spent 47 years of his life here, since joining the troupe aged ten, Jianguo is well-qualified to talk about life as an acrobat. Those excitable children I watched the show with were cherry picked from an audition group three times the size, and Jianguo knows exactly how to help them reach their potential.
'One of the most important aspects of being a good artist is that you want to learn more and do more,' he says. 'The artists in China Goes Pop started with multiple disciplines, but in the course of rehearsing the show, they've learned even more. They're good artists so they want to continually develop themselves.'
China Goes Pop, Assembly Hall, Mound Place, 4–27 Aug (not 9, 16, 23), 4.20pm, £13–£15 (£11–£13). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £8.