It takes a rubbery, elastic body to be a Peking acrobat. More importantly, it takes practice, discipline, and stamina — and a rigorous imagination, to boot. Many of these acrobats start at a young age and spend the better part of their youth learning to juggle strange objects, shimmy up poles, and contort their bodies into unlikely positions. By age sixteen (the legal performing age), they are well versed in plate-spinning, parallel poles, and human pyramids. They know how to balance trays of flaming votive candles on each limb, carry chairs on their noses, and spin rugs on their feet. They can juggle just about anything: rugs, plates, jars of water, furniture, or smaller performers. And they're able to execute such tricks consistently, up to four times a day.
Most of these tricks date back 2,000 years, Peking Acrobats spokesperson Katie Bates said. But the group tries to up the ante every year, either with a new flourish or an additional stunt. This year's tour, which visits Berkeley on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 23 and 24, will include such favorites as the High Chair — in which one person balances atop a stack of chairs that reaches almost to the ceiling of Zellerbach Hall — and the Bicycle Pagoda, which requires several performers to climb onto a bicycle and circle around the stage. The show will also include an act called Double Pole Position, which was featured in Steven Soderbergh's movie Ocean's Eleven. It includes two long, narrow poles that run from the ceiling to the stage floor. Two particularly limber acrobats jump from one pole to the other, landing in ways that test the strength of their muscles and the fragility of their bones. Other acts involve roller skates, unicycles, water tossed in clay jars, and umbrellas balanced on sundry body parts.
It's a show void of sight gags or trickery, Bates said, assuring that on this stage, everything is what it seems. She added that the show seldom has any wrinkles, though she has seen one blooper on videotape. It showed a performance at a fair — probably after a long day in the hot sun — in which someone did indeed drop the plates during a plate-spinning act. "In one fluid moment, they kept on going," Bates said. "It was almost more impressive that way, because it showed that yes, they really are spinning five plates." The best acrobats in China need not weep over shattered crockery. Peking Acrobats perform Saturday, Jan. 23, at 2 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 24, at 3 p.m. at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall with a music ensemble that includes such traditional instruments as the pipa, the er hur, and the yang qin. $24-$46. CalPerfs.Berkeley.edu