The Times


Donald Huter

Despite the presence of chairs in several routines, the last thing that the 30-plus members of China’s Anhui Acrobatics are allowed to do is sit down. In Za-Ji, an alarmingly fit and ever-smiling young cast tries just about everything else within the realm of physical possibility. Directed by Jianping Zhu, the show is a sometimes outrageously entertaining blend of kitsch production values and gob-smacking stunts.

Opening night began unprepossessingly with a theatrically flat, cumbersome two-person aerial ballet based on the tragic myth of a Chinese Romeo and Juliet reincarnated as butterflies. But subsequently the string of acts grew in term of thrills and weird skills.

A clutch of strong, wiry women struck what the programme billed as ‘artistic poses’ – cantilevered balances and pretzel-like conglomerations of skin and bone. In a spine and mind-bending display of contortion, a soloist twisted like taffy while balancing pretty little tiers of plastic cups via feet, forehead and mouth. Raised up on a revolving platform, she could have been a human fountain only minus the water.

Perched atop a stack of six chairs, a compact woman executed single hand-stands with imperturbable confidence and zen-like concentration. Her rock-solid moves were punctuated with sexy little twitches of the midriff. A more obviously fetching girl worked an audience ranging from kids to pensioners into a collective frenzy, simply by inserting herself inside a battery of silver hula hoops.

The centrepiece of the daintiest-seeming act lay on her back, gracefully tumbling large parasols with slippered feet. She then switched to simultaneously spinning fabric with all four limbs and, thanks to a short stick held between the teeth, head. 

By contrast the boys of Anhui were boundingly athletic, whether vaulting and somersaulting through stationary rings or shooting up, down and between tall, vertical poles. One made his ascent using only his muscular arms, while the lot of them stretched out parallel to the floor straight as ram-rods in gravity-defying group tableaux.

Originally found in 1956, the current Anhui ensemble is plainly stunningly well-trained. Inevitably, however, there is the risk of failure. Witness a plate-spinning section attended by a caterwauling, tiara-wearing vocalist who smacked og Las Vegas.

Here the girls simpered nicely, at least until one attempted a single handstand on another’s hand. As the grimaces of the girl on bottom made painfully clear, the trick wasn’t working. Her few moments of ill-concealed shame afterward were a poignant example of what a dedicated, emotionally transparent company this is.

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