First published on 3 Jun 2011. Updated on 17 Feb 2014.
What Chinese acrobatic shows lack in variety, they make up for with mindblowing tricks. Time Out visits five of the biggest Chinese circus shows in Shanghai to find balls of death, human pyramids and hoop diving
ERA, the acrobatics show at Shanghai Circus World is phenomenal and cheesy, sometimes both at the same time. On the one hand, you get tacky effects and white leotard-clad couples ‘flying’ around while ‘you and I can dream and fly’ booms from the stereo.
On the other, you get performers doing the impossible – most spectacularly, one acrobat jumps down from a 15-metre high platform onto the end of a seesaw, catapulting a tiny acrobat onto a small chair that’s placed mid-air. Also impressive is the ‘ball of death’ finale, when eight motorbikes simultaneously drive around inside a small metal sphere.
And the hoop-diving act – when acrobats jump and somersault through hoops placed at various heights – is performed at breathtaking speed and with the most acrobats that we’ve seen. Although the cavernous, circular theatre was cold and barely half-full on our mid-week visit, it’s certainly one of Shanghai’s best acrobat shows.
Number of acts More than 15
Number of mistakes Three, including a four-storey human pyramid that collapsed in spectacular fashion.
Price 140RMB-590RMB (Don’t book expensive seats – they’re almost identical to the cheapest both in terms of comfort and view of stage.)
Shanghai Circus World 2266 Gonghexin Lu, near Guangzhong Lu See full address details
The theatre is almost empty when we visit mid-week – it feels like we’re watching a dress rehearsal instead of an actual show. There are fewer daring acts than at Shanghai Circus World and Magnolia Theatre, but the performance turns out to one of the slickest and best-paced of them all, with well-trained acrobats performing in a modern and comfortable theatre.
Our two favourites are a daring tightrope act – where an acrobat walks across a swinging rope – followed by a stunning diablo routine. Here, five girls in pretty pink outfits sling diabolos at each other from opposite sides of the stage, all while dancing to Calypso.
Except for the ‘ball of death’ motorbike act, all of the classics are on show, including jumping-through-the-hoops (average), plate-spinning (good, with more plates than at the other shows) and hat-swapping by eight performers dressed like barber shop boys (excellent).
Number of acts 14
Number of mistakes Eight
Shanghai Theatre 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Xikang Lu See full address details
'Pujiang Feeling 2’, put on by the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, is a slick and no-nonsense show, with well-trained acrobats performing in a pleasant, classic-style theatre. Like a few acrobatic shows, though, the pacing’s a bit wrong - of the 12 acts, a lot of the best ones are near the beginning, like a top-notch hoop-diving routine; a girl in a flying ring who has the grace of a ballet dancer; flipping; hat-swapping; and a cute kid dressed as a ladybird who balances on a vertiginous tower of chairs (it’s good, honest).
After a high quality start, the second half of the show is a bit disappointing, including a lacklustre magician, standard hula hoops and an uninspiring act where performers balance ceramic pots on their heads. By the time the motorbikes come on, the momentum’s gone a bit from the show – the finale involves eight bikes, though three don’t leave the bottom part of the sphere. It’s not as impressive as the Shanghai Circus World version.
Number of acts 12
Number of mistakes One
Huxi Grand Theatre 205 Wuning Lu, near Dongxin Lu See full address details
Worn carpets, faded red seats and a small single-storey seating area make this theatre feel more like a pokey old cinema. The show opens with a lame performance from four dancers dressed as golden lions in front of a tacky backdrop showing a Chinese water town. But things quickly improve, and the first half of the show turns out to be the best we’ve seen. Most impressive is the hat-swapping routine, performed to big band Bugsy Malone-style music. This is followed by an acrobat who performs a series of stunning gymnast-style poses as he balances atop a pile of ten stacked chairs.
From here, though, things go a bit awry: an uninspiring magician is followed by slow motion hoop-diving - on several occasions, performers almost stop before they jump through. Overall, Cirque du Soleil it’s not; the clowning is less clever than even run-of-the-mill circus fare and the acrobatics seem more like gymnastic routines than theatrical acts. But you can’t argue with the strength, flexibility and juggling skills on show.
Number of acts 13
Number of mistakes One
Magnolia Theatre 308 Chongqing Nan Lu, near Jianguo Zhong Lu See full address details
The Stunt Yunfeng’s ‘Charming Shanghai’ show at the Cloud Theatre is the most error-strewn acrobatic show we’ve seen. The Communist-era theatre is dingy, with a large red banner above the stage reading ‘Welcome the friends from all over the world’ and backdrops of tacky bucolic China scenes. With awkward Chinglish introductions, lurid uniforms and extremely young acrobats, you could be in Pyongyang.
There are plenty of acts, with the city’s only 12-on-a-bike trick, but they’re generally less slick than at other shows – in the ‘ball of death’ motorbike finale, for example, there are only five bikes flying round the sphere, fewer than the usual eight. The highlight is a chipper hat-swapping routine; the lowlight is a cringey Titanic-themed bit where a boy and girl fly around on a giant ribbon as Celine Dion warbles and the film plays on the big screens. At the end, the youngest performers rush outside to flog you Charming Shanghai DVDs for 100RMB.
Number of acts 14
Number of mistakes 15
Cloud Theatre 1700 Beijing Xi Lu, near Wanhangdu Lu See full address details