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Tao on a Tightwire

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Sublimity is rare on YouTube, but try the Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats. In the “Bowl Balance,” a man dressed in white lifts up a girl, also in white. He holds only her hands; she’s bent into a C shape. Gradually, you’ll notice a soup bowl balanced on her head. Her lips are pursed like a serene princess.

The Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats will appear at the Ulster Performing Arts Center on November 1. This is their 29th North American tour, but each year’s show is different, in case you’ve seen this troupe previously. But not everything changes. “There are certain acts we have to bring, no matter what,” observes tour producer Don Hughes. “The public expects to see them. One is what we call ‘The Tower of Chairs,’ where the performer goes up 26 feet in the air and does a one-handed horizontal handstand at the top. Everyone is just holding their breath—I’ll have to tell you—including me! I’ve seen it for the majority of my life, but my palms still sweat when I see that act.”

The Shangri-La acrobats work without a tightwire or nets. “It makes it more exciting, watching them,” says Hughes. “You know, when they’ve got a wire on, people are inclined to believe that the wire’s holding them up.” “The Pagoda of Chairs,” which is all women, standing sideways, is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most chairs with no tightwire.

Not all the acts are nail-biters, however. Performers dressed as two shaggy Chinese lions balance on a large red ball, on a seesaw. A contortionist performs; there’s scarf-dancing, juggling, and kung fu.

Acrobatics is a central part of Chinese culture. Every major city has an acrobat troupe, the way American cities have baseball teams. Children begin training at the age of five or six and practice six days a week. Ken Hai, a fourth-generation Chinese acrobat, is artistic director of Shangri-La. At a studio in Beijing, he auditions performers. The current troupe includes 13 acrobats.

Am I imagining an influence of Taoism? Lao Tzu wrote:

Alive, a man is supple, soft;
In death, unbending, rigorous.
All creatures, grass and trees, alive
Are pliant; dead, are brittle and dry.

Hughes has been organizing tours for Chinese acrobats since 1973. In that time, audiences have become more familiar with this art form. “Originally, when we first came, people wanted to see Chinese culture,” Hughes remembers. “Now they go to see it because they know it’s good!” This year the Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats played seven months at Opryland, in Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve also performed on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in Las Vegas.

Acrobats are more inspiring than most sermons. The performers escape death every day by pulling together, literally. They fall, and bounce back up. These are lessons we all need to learn, and relearn—especially while watching spinning plates.

“There’s no age limit on it, and no language barrier!” vows Hughes.
The Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats will appear at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston at 2 pm and 7pm on November 1. (845) 339-6088; www.upac.org.

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