September 10, 2003
Well before the time of Christ, there were Chinese acrobats. But in the B.C. era, and even well into the A.D. years, the sight of acrobats tumbling and flying were not for common Chinese eyes.
“We read from the history books, acrobats could only perform for the emperor,” said Angela Chang, who for more than 20 years has been choreographer and costume designer for the Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats troupe. “The common people couldn’t see this kind of performance at all. The emperor chose to see it, and it wasn’t for other people to touch.”
It was about 200 years ago that Chinese acrobatics began to find its way into mainstream society. As the history books have it, the farmers in and around the town of Wu Chou, suffering through tough times, were looking for an easy way to make a few extra yuan. Acrobatics seemed as good an answer as any.
“The farmers would train their kids on home equipment, like tables, and do small tours to earn money for the family,” said Chang. “And they found out it was really good business – they could earn money and people really loved it. So they started making bigger tours; they went to India and Russia.”
Acrobatics has been a growth business in China ever since. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when China became a virtually closed society, many Chinese opted for a career in acrobatics as a way not only to make a living, but to travel outside China. Now there are countless acrobats, acrobatic troupes and acrobatics schools throughout China.
The Golden Dragons
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Among those companies of tumblers was the Chang Family Acrobatic School of Taipei, founded some 50 years ago by Chang Lian Chi. The school also had a touring wing, the Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats. When Danny Chang, Lian Chi’s son, turned 10, he became a performer with the touring company. Some 25 years ago, Danny Chang, Angela’s husband, took over as director and producer of the troupe and in 1984 moved its base of operations to the United States.
Based first in Dallas, and then Plano, Texas, the Golden Dragon Acrobats built an international reputation. The company has performed in all 50 states and in more than 65 countries on five continents. Among the venues they have appeared at are the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Germany’s Elspe Festival and Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City. On Friday, Sept. 12, the Golden Dragon Acrobats fly into Aspen, for a performance at the Wheeler Opera House.
Though the Changs moved to the States at the urging of their American-based agent, they have found American audiences remarkably receptive to their brand of high-flying acrobatics and feats of balance and strength, mixed with traditional Chinese dance.
“American audiences are the most comfortable for us to perform to,” said the Taiwan-born Angela. “We feel Americans are very open, very friendly. It’s so nice how they share the joy with the performers. South Americans like more fighting, like kung fu, a stronger act. Americans like more relaxed, beautiful, colorful, comfortable things.”
The current tour includes 12 acrobats, and the act features such performances as a contortion segment, the high-flying rope dance, a balancing act on the top of a chair, jumping through hoops, and the Lion Dance, with no actual lion, but two performers in a lion costume.
For Angela Chang, the acrobatics world was a departure. She had been trained as a dancer, in ballet, Chinese folk and modern dance, at the Chinese Cultural College of Taipei. Chang got experience in arts management putting in eight years as coordinator of cultural programming for the Taiwan Television Corporation. After marrying, she joined her husband in managing the Golden Dragon Acrobats and shaping their show. Along the way, she has taken acrobatics to heart.
“After starting to help my husband and seeing acrobatics, I understood more about it,” she said. “I told Danny, `If I was younger, I would have learned acrobatics for positive.'”
Chang has been putting her own dance background into the Golden Dragon Acrobats show, and has found the two make a perfect fusion.
“If I could put acrobatics and dance together, that would be perfect,” she said. “Dance adds the personal feeling to it. Put it together and it’s a wonderful, perfect thing.
“Acrobatics is so easy to understand. It’s not like opera or ballet, where you need to learn the language. You see it – it’s the human body doing incredible, impossible things.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org