A performance Tuesday evening at the Midwest Theater will offer a unique look at an art form that dates back more than 2000 years.
“Many of the magnificent acrobatic acts we see today, despite their sophistication, were performed in ancient times,” Eli Schellinger, production manager for The Peking Acrobats, said.
He said "the audience can expect to be amazed,” by the performance which blends ancient Chinese acrobatics with contemporary styles and modern theatrical technology.
Chinese acrobatics is an art form with a rich history.
“Originally, court entertainments were formal and monotonous, quite the opposite of the lively folk arts of the people,” Schellinger said. “And it did all begin with folk arts: tumbling, juggling ordinary household objects and balancing.”
Common games, such as “Rang Hitting,” which is throwing a small wooden strip the size and shape of a shoe sole at a target, influenced acrobatics.
“Modern day Whip Feats are traced back to this game,” Schellinger said.
The art was also influenced by myth and religion. The Lion Dance, rooted in Buddhism, was seen as the reincarnation of a woman who was teased into revealing her true identity, he said.
“This dance was a symbol of spiritual renewal and revered for dispelling bad luck,” said Schellinger, adding that eventually, the ruling class took notice of acrobats and began routinely inviting them to the court to entertain.
Records of acrobatic acts can be found as early as the Ch’in Dynasty, which stretched from 221-206 BC. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC until 220 ad), the acts of tumbling, singing, dancing and juggling became known as “The Hundred Entertainments.".
Through the ages, Chinese acrobats have continued to develop and perfect their art — the Peking Acrobats are no exception.
“Tradition demands that each generation of acrobats add their own improvements and embellishments to their acts,” Schellinger said. “Generations of families have carried on this highly acclaimed and popular tradition.”
Acrobats are still held in high regard in China, where they are considered artists. In order to be a star, children must begin a rigorous training schedule at a young age that continues throughout their career.
“Because of the unusual and difficult nature of the feats involved, high honor is conferred upon those skilled enough to become acrobats,” Schellinger said. “In China, an acrobat is considered the Chinese equivalent of an opera star in the West.”
While many traditions fade, acrobatics is growing stronger. he credits the growth to the continued innovation of artists and supportive audiences.
“Our acrobats are some of the best in the world,” Schellinger said.
They set the world record for the human chair stack on Fox’s Guinness World Records Primetime and have made a number of other notable appearances including Ocean’s 11, The Wayne Brady Show, Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous and Ellen’s Really Big Show.
Despite seeing the acrobats perform more than 500 times, Schellinger still gets nervous for the performers.
“I have to fight the urge to be worried,” he said. “I am still amazed that they are able to do some of the things they do. It’s absolutely astounding.”
The show also will feature a unique musical backdrop.
“The Peking Acrobats feel that music is essential to humanity,” he said. “It is for this reason that we are one of the only groups that tour with a live Chinese orchestra. Our show is a chance for patrons to see and hear instruments that are not very common in North America.”
For the Peking Acrobats, the performance is more than stunts and traditional Chinese sounds — it’s about telling the story of a culture.
“I personally believe that we must remember our own stories as humans or we will forget who we are,” Schellinger said. “The culture and history of China is a particularly fascinating piece of our story.”
The group will perform at 7:30 p.m. and tickets range from $38-45. They can be purchased at Midwesttheater.com, at the box office or by calling 632-4311.