Shanghai Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China
Shanghai Nights at Berkeley, CA
September 10, 2016
The richly talented Shanghai Nights, from one of the country’s leading troops, offers yet another one of those tortured patch works combining ballet, theatre, opera, and circus. But the circus parts are well worth the patience it may take for you to sit through the story-alluding segments. If I got it right, two fated lovers get torn apart, until they are reunited, and a clown is murdered.
How Novel: A Chinese Clown
The clown is played by the gifted Nia Jian, a charming asset to the troupe and to the story telling, such as it is, or may have been; I don't pay much attention to those things, and I don't think anybody else does, either. Jian has comedic flair and charisma, agility and deft dancing skills. A star jester, I'd guess, and in so unexpected a setting!
For example, when Nie Jian takes time out from his clowning for some serious work on the rolla bolla, he places cups on the tip of his balanced board, and flips them up onto his head. First one cup, then two, all the way up to five. Five. Get this: They are all flipped together, though separately, into the air and manage to land, each in succession, one after the other into the preceding cup! Jaw dropping.
Much of the circus in this show is like that. At delicious intervals, ensembles blossom into mesmerizing charivari action, banners flaring, people jumping off springboards in one direction, flying up in another, yet others dancing or juggling in a front line, the hyperactive juxtapositions a work of great joy. So many tricksters doing so many wonderful things at the same time! The hand of Buzby Berkeley comes to mind. Yes, sit there through the big top broccoli servings and take it -- if you want to get to the good stuff -- the cotton candy thrills. Oh, the sacrificial drudgery (pretending to be following a plot) of circus-going these days.
Imprisoned in Darkness
But don’t count on the first half stream of pure circus to be as abundant after intermission. In fact, the second half grows darker and more dramatic with the invasion of “evil forces.” The ballet crowd may go for some luminous stage pictures. And those who favor Bach on solo violin may feel placated. Yes, Cirque du Soleil’s fetish for opera comes annoyingly to mind. Some of the recorded scoring, to be fair, is strong and relevant.
The Shanghai Acrobats have performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and, lately, in concert halls to the music of the masters. I think I would much prefer the symphony showcase to this. But then again, I suppose they have their eye on patrons of the higher arts who want their circus free of all the things with which they have their "issues." The perfect show for this crowd, which filled the Zellerbach.
Were Shanghai Nights true, with every frame, to its acrobatic brilliance and compelling creative genius. I’d gladly give it at least 3-1/2 stars
But, it has all the other stuff that can feel stifling, however well intended or execuited. Sorry, something about the weakest links in a chain, you know. So, I'm giving it a decent 2-1/2 stars.
After the show talk: Shanghai Acrobats appeared at the ERA Intersection of Time, In Shanghai, in 2010-2012. When I was there in 2010, I saw another very creative show, but with no where near the same problematic story line as this one. I discuss it in my book, Inside the Changing Circus ... I'd love to have a photo of Nie Jian, but can't find any in my searches. Were I to contact the management, I am almost sure they would not favor me. I think they have a thing against giving any individual artist a shred of individual attention ... Was every act a gem? No, there were a few so-so routines. The lady plate spinners, this time on stilts, did nothing but keep the plates spinning while walking around and around during one of the most boring narrative sequences. I saw few flubs at the show I caught, doubly remarkable among the populous ensembles when so many things were in motion. Much of the group work manipulating similar objects was outstanding. As you know, it is not always that way.