Friday, January 9, 2004



The athletes return to show their acrobatic skills.

Aiming for

The New Shanghai Circus
is back in town with its
amazing feats of athleticism

It's no small feat to top the incredible. But if all goes according to Mike Wilson's vision, the New Shanghai Circus' latest production will again stupefy Oahu audiences this weekend at the Hawaii Theatre.

‘Mongolian Dreams’

Featuring the New Shanghai Circus

Where: Hawaii Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. today, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20, $25 and $30 for adults; $15 and $20 for seniors, military and those 12 and younger
Call: 528-0506

As the man responsible for bringing the first touring Chinese acrobatic troupe to the West, Wilson has seen the astonishing production flourish over the years. As he tells it, in 1980, Wilson accompanied his father, renowned magician Mark Wilson -- the first foreign variety entertainer to perform on the Chinese mainland -- to China. While there, the Wilsons were treated to numerous Chinese performances, including local symphony, ballet, opera and acrobat shows. The acrobatic exhibitions, in particular, left the Wilsons flabbergasted. "We said, 'Wow, this is spectacular,'" Wilson remembers. "These are acts that are different from a Ringling Circus or European circuses. We really need to bring them to America."

In 1984, he organized the first Chinese acrobatic tour of the U.S., which was received enthusiastically by American audiences. Officially dubbed The Shanghai Circus Presents the Incredible Acrobats of China, the acclaimed, award-winning troupe has traversed the world nearly each year since, as the largest and most prominent of all touring Chinese acrobatic acts.

According to Wilson, the group has passed at least a half-dozen times through Hawaii, which has served as something of a gateway between the East and West for the Shanghai Circus. This year's Hawaii leg encompasses a four-island mini-tour, which takes the performers from Honolulu to the Big Island, Maui and Kauai.

AS ONE might expect, it's a welcome respite from a demanding domestic regimen. "At home, they train every day," he says. "They have an acrobat academy where they practice their act to perfection and also share their skills with young, up-and-coming acrobats to help them learn the act.

"They develop new acts, as well as add additional tricks to an existing act. Can you do it higher, can you do it longer, can you do it farther? If you're balancing 76 candelabras, can you do 84 or 100 candles at one time?"

As Wilson explains, the academy periodically runs advertisements in local papers to recruit new students. Hundreds of hopeful parents bring their children to the academy, most of whom are between the ages of 7 and 9. Following a lengthy screening process, the number of applicants are pared down to roughly 200 or 300, based on perceived potential. The parents are then invited back to meet with academy heads, so that the selection committee can gain better determination of the child's eventual body type, living environment and disposition.

In the end, 30 are invited to train at the academy. Their first three or four years, they undergo a combined program of academics and gymnastics, learning basic flexibility, balance and strength exercises. In their early teens, they are directed toward specialized roles as contortionists, tumblers or strongmen. In their later teens, they embark on careers as performers.

As always, this year's production, entitled "Mongolian Dreams," features incredible feats of athleticism, though this year's program is rooted in concepts taken from the home of the acrobats' academy in inner Mongolia. "I think the style of presentation and costuming is unbelievable this year," Wilson enthuses. Among the promised spectacles are a strongman who shoots multiple bows simultaneously and a young man who holds a woman in a handstand over his head as she shoots a bow and arrow with her feet to a target across the stage.

In addition, says Wilson, the show's lighting director and production designer are working overtime to ensure audiences a performance of the highest caliber by devoting special attention to music, lighting, costumes and overall presentation. "We try to bring modern technology, modern backdrops and lights so that we're not changing the act itself, but displaying the act in a more contemporary fashion to meet the expectations of a Western audience," he says.

Or, perhaps more likely, to exceed them. The dazzling art of the traveling circus is, after all, the greatest show on earth.

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