The Chinese State Circus is on a Big Top tour of the UK, after its new production, Dynasty, was well-received last year. Catch them next at Jackson’s Recreation Ground, Rochester, Kent, from Tuesday 17th-Sunday 22nd October; then Midsummer Common in Cambridge, from Tuesday 24th-Sunday 29th October. New dates are being added regularly, so do check back to the website to find out if they’re coming to a venue near you.
If the word ‘circus’ makes you think of creepy clowns, sad-looking animals and half-baked acrobatics, then the Chinese State Circus will blow all your misconceptions out of the water. Dynasty, their most recent show, is dazzling.
The performance began gleefully for us. When we stepped into the red splendour of the Big Top at Eastcote, north London, the children persuaded us to buy two large, Marge Simpson-esque bouffant sticks of blue candy floss. D grabbed some chips from the stall selling hot dogs, burgers and tea, and we took our seats in the semi-circle around the surprisingly small stage.
If you watch the video at the end of this post, you might imagine a huge auditorium, with hundreds in the audience. Instead, the setting at Eastcote was intimate. People in the ringside seats were well within touching distance of the performers. This gave a human edge to the superhuman efforts of the 30 acrobats, jugglers and dancers. When men, clad in tiger-striped jumpsuits, somersaulted their way through rings set metres in the air, they landed on mattresses only a couple of feet away from the audience.
The jugglers tossed hats, diabolos and streamers so close to us, they looked as though they could land on our heads. In fact, a juggler did pluck a boy out of the audience, so he could use his head as a target for a spinning hat. We could see every glistening, oiled ripple on the athletic torsos of Duo Extreme, a Bulgarian couple on a ‘cultural exchange’. They came out onto the stage in underwear, and proceeded to embrace. (“Mummy, they look as though they’re being rude” said my daughter). As a wire hoisted them up towards the ceiling, they grappled, clung, and hung from each other. Until the man suddenly dropped the woman, tens of metres through the air, into a pool of flaming water. It was magnificent.
The circus performances were varied, with Chinese culture running through them all. We had a double helping of the fearsome Shaolin warriors, who were all zen and muscle. At one point, one warrior hit the other with large sticks, which cracked in half when they met his taut body. Yikes. Particularly impressive was the sequence where a woman spun six large umbrellas, using just her legs. While lying on her back. And holding two more umbrellas in her hands. It was beautiful, delicate and serene. And crikey, that woman must have some ferocious core strength.
There was a nod to the popularity of bikes in modern China. In a staggering section, cyclists pirouetted on their hands and knees, and even somersaulted over each other while still on the bike. Chinese dragons, of course, made an appearance. They, and the cheeky Monkey King who brought audience members on stage for fun and japes while the set was changed, were the only things resembling animals in this show.
All this, and the colourful display of traditional regional Chinese costumes at the end of the show, made me more determined than ever to visit China. If it’s anything as beguiling, astonishing, and beautiful as the Chinese State Circus’s Dynasty, the trip will be worth every penny.
Ticket prices for the Chinese State Circus vary, from £36 for an adult in a ringside seat, to £10 for a child in the rear circle. More information is available on the Chinese State Circus website. You can watch a video here: