The One Unexpected Experience That Sums Up Beijing
[Above image: Balancing Chinese Acrobats. Image via pintrest.]
I've said before that China, especially Beijing, feels like a crush of energy coming at you from all sides. It's life being thrown directly in your face: You see cars cut traffic by mounting the sidewalk, veering around vendor's carts full of fruits so different they don't have an english name. It's raw, messy, vibrant and beautiful.
And while the endless neighbourhoods mean you could spend years exploring before you see the whole city, you can get a sense of the unpolished, edge-of-your-seat aliveness that is Beijing in one sitting. How? Go to a Chinese Acrobat Show.
On my first visit to China, in 2012, my brother arranged for us to go to a show on an idle weeknight, a few blocks from the behemoth cement apartment buildings of his neighbourhood. The outside was unassuming—a squat little building that was a dull grey.
We walked the flight of thin steps to the building’s entrance. I was unsure what to expect, totally ignorant of what made a Chinese acrobat show unique.
Soon, thumping circus-like music was bleeding into the foyer from the theatre. We rushed for our seats. Velvet curtains were receding to the side as the stage glowed.
[Above: Chinese Acrobat perfromers spinning plates. Image via pintrest.]
It was nothing like I imagined. The acts were not spandex-clad interpretive-dancers-turned contortionists. They were not clowns in tiny cars, or people using animals as props. Basically, they were nothing like we envision a “circus” in the west to be.
It was groups of kids who looked maybe all of 13, performing a variety of party tricks so unsafe I doubt their mothers approve, all under heavy white makeup topped with drawn-on, exaggerated features.
Their rainbow eyebrows arched delicately as they tried to smile while piling 30 high on a bicycle.
Their foreheads showed beads of sweat as they somersaulted dangerously close to the orchestra pit, wheeling in their limbs just in time.
They built human pyramids in matching outfits, diving out of the way when a motorcycle revved onstage, veering towards them.
Soon, a second motorcycle joined the first. They mounted a looping ramp, sailing through the air and almost into the audience as the tail pipes emitted sparks that could have been a special effect or an engine fire.
My favourite was a petite girl in silk robes pooling on the floor, moving swiftly while spinning plates on sticks. She started with one, and added them in threes until it felt like she had hundreds rhythmically rolling six feet above her. Her hands were full, but she decided to add one more. In one sudden jolt, every plate tipped dangerously, almost falling off their sticks.
Her smile never broke. She righted herself just in time, and the noticeable wobble seemed to only add to her theatrics. We cheered.
As I caught my breath and left the theatre with my family, I felt I understood this new country a little better. Living in Beijing is living in the beautiful, exciting rawness of an unravelling edge. It’s balancing Chinese tradition with modern life and western influence like a big, culturally-loaded plate on top of a stick spinning fast as wi-fi.
Leaving the building, a car veered onto the sidewalk, it’s fender whizzing by an arm’s length away from me. I shrugged—it felt like I was just in the front row.