The man was repeatedly flinging five tennis balls into the air. After launching the balls, he would catch two in his hand and keep the other three in the air doing all kinds of fancy tricks. He calls the tricks “hand skills.” 33-year old Yang Yong is one of the number of Henan acrobats who left declining interest in the art form back home to find it thriving in Shantou.
“I have juggled for six years. At the beginning, I used three balls to practice. When I became comfortable with using three balls, I tried using four balls, then five balls. Now I want the challenge of six balls. It’s hard for me and I need more practice,” Yang Yong said.
The acrobatic troupe of Shantou was established in 1956. It’s the only government-sponsored professional acrobatic troupe in Shantou and eastern Guangdong. In the acrobatic troupe, different people practice different skills, including “pedaling umbrellas,” which involves a person lying on a long chair kicks several umbrellas into the air, a little like juggling with their feet. They also practice “top bowl,” the art of flinging bowls into the air and catching them on their heads; “drilling barrels,” putting someone’s body into a barrel; “flying trapeze;” and, of course, contortion. Yang yong is the only one exercising hand skills in the acrobatics troupe. So often, you can see him exercise in the hall alone. He’ll not stop until he is drenched with sweat. One time, he juggled for five hours without stopping. While some of his colleagues view him as the most industrious member of the troupe, others think he is just possessed.
“I admit I am possessed, but I think it is worth it. Being a good acrobatic actor needs great physique and skills. When you are young, physique is more important and can make you successful quickly. As you get older, skills become more important to survive in an acrobatics troupe,” Yang Yong explained.
Acrobatics is such a hard job that many people can hardly handle it. Originally, back in Henan, there were forty people doing acrobatics with Yang Yong. At one time, that number dropped to just two people.
“Some people perform acrobatics just for the money. Only if you love acrobatics are you likely to treat it as lifelong career,” Yang Yong said.
Yang Yong originally performed acrobatics in a group in Henan. In 1998, the group was hired to join the acrobatic troupe of Shantou.
“In Henan, the future of acrobatic performance wasn’t bright,” Yang Yong said,”We have spent our youth on acrobatics. It’s hard for us to change our career. We should find a way to survive.”
The original acrobatics troupe in Henan was privately run, meaning that they needed to perform privately contracted shows.
“Acrobatics performances are different from other performances such as singing,” Yang Yong explained. “Some famous singers singing a song can get more than 100,000 RMB, but an acrobatics troupe performing one night can just get around 50, 000 RMB.” In order to earn more money, they performed several times each day, and even went to different places to perform each day. The teammates felt anchorless and tired. They wanted some stability in their lives. Around the same time, many old members of the Shantou acrobatics troupe left, but the local people didn’t want their children to learn acrobatics. The Shantou acrobatics troupe needed to scout talent from other areas. Their prayers were answered when the Henan acrobatics troupe performed in Shantou. The leader of the Shantou acrobatics troupe was so satisfied with their performance that he invited them to join the Shantou acrobatics troupe.
In the Shantou acrobatics troupe, the Henan acrobats have found a comfortable and steady home. Their lives are easier because most performances are organized by the government, and the government pays them 40% of basic wages. When they go abroad all of the logistics are taken care of by the government. Even though the government does arrange some performances for them, they still need to perform privately contracted shows as well. But it’s still an easier life than in Henan. In Henan there are nearly 2000 acrobatics troupes offering performances, while the Shantou troupe is the only troupe in all of eastern Guangdong. Their services are in much higher demand and business is much better.
Now the acrobatic troupe of Shantou had gone out of its predicaments having no actors and there are twenty-five locals and twenty Henan people now. 10 of 45 people are students. They come from Henan, too.
Daily exercises run from 9am to 12pm and from 3pm to 6pm. Before practicing specific performance skills, the students warm up with handstands. When newcomers join the troupe, handstands are a difficult undertaking and require the help of a partner. But with a lot of practice, they quickly become a basic part of their repertoire. From there they learn the other basics, like turning a somersault.
Shantou people don’t want their children to exercise acrobatics because it’s hard. But acrobatics for the Henan children is more than a job. It’s also like a game, especially when there are no adults around. A girl was using two strings hung on the ceiling to play flying trapeze and practice handstands. Another girl was riding a giraffe unicycle [this is a type of tall unicycle] to meet her teammate in the air. A little boy was walking on a thin rope crazily. Another boy was teasing him on the floor.Generally speaking, they treat the hall as an amusement park.
Lily Zhao, 13years old, pulling her hair back and wearing sportswear. When called on, she smiled. Because of her great talent as a contortionist, she has traveled to many foreign countries to perform with the acrobatic troupe.
In recent years, the troupe has traveled to many places-including Africa, Japan, Malaysia, France, the United States, Holland and Hong Kong-for cultural exchanges, to console disaster victims, and take part in celebrations put on by the Ministry of Culture. In January of 2008, the acrobatic troupe of Shantou went to France on one such cultural exchange.
“This year, we went to France to perform.When we appeared on the stage, the audiences called ‘Lily Zhao’ loudly. Many audiences like Lily’s performance,” Xiao Mei, Lily’s teacher, said .”She is a talented child. You don’t need to tell her the tips of ‘contortion,’ because her body is naturally soft enough. Before performing acrobatics, many contortionists need to warm-up for at least 30 minutes. But Lily doesn’t need to; she can do it anytime.”
Even though Lily has more opportunities than other children and gets a lot of attention, she is still a child. She’s not sure why she learns acrobatics.
“When I was 6 years old, my mother asked me to follow my relatives and join the acrobatic troupe of Shantou. I neither love nor hate acrobatics. But I’ll feel unhappy if I can’t do my training well,” she said with a smile.
She said she has an old sister and a young brother in her hometown. “Sometimes I miss them.”
All of the 10 students were introduced to the troupe by their relatives. They can go home every two years. They miss their families, too. But they must control their emotion and can’t delay exercise.
“They are well-behaved.” XiaoMei said approvingly.
Xiao Mei is the children’s teacher and is the only person exercising “pedaling umbrella.” “Pedaling umbrella” is a traditional acrobatics program, but not many people want to exercise it because it’s troublesome.
“In order to attract audiences, you couldn’t just exercise ‘pedaling umbrella’. You need to pedal other objects like tables. But taking a table to perform is troublesome,” Xiao Mei said with a forced smile. “Actually pedaling table is easier than pedaling umbrella. An umbrella is so light. It is hard to focus and make it stable. It can only be performed when the air is completely still.”
“I am trying to find Suitable candidates to exercise it. It’s an acrobatic tradition and we can’t lose it,” XiaoMei said assuredly.
Acrobatics has a long history in China. It needs not only heirs but also development and innovation. The children, XiaoMei and YangYong are taking it forward.