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Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe’s Swan Lake

September 20, 2010
Swan Lake performed by Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China

The internationally acclaimed Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China, founded in 1951, is China’s foremost acrobatic company. Renowned throughout the world, the Company astounds audiences with its astonishing productions which push imagination, physicality and technology to their limits in its electrifying presentations of traditional Chinese folk acrobatics within a dynamic modern perspective.

Drawing inspiration from classical dance, traditional Chinese acrobatics and elements of Peking Opera, the Guangdong Acrobatic Company’s extraordinary version of Swan Lake has taken the world by storm since its premier in 2006. A co-production with the Shanghai City Dance Company, this spectacular ballet, a seamless fusion of breathtaking acrobatic feats and magnificent classical dance, has transformed its principal dancers into international stars and thrilled audiences worldwide.

Swan Lake performed by Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China

This is not your usual “Swan Lake.” Although this 19th-century Russian ballet has been a fixture on the Chinese stage for decades, the current version contains several decidedly Chinese twists. It opens with Prince Siegfried (played by Wei Baohua) dreaming of a beautiful girl who has been transformed into a swan by an evil eagle, a vision that propels him into a quest that takes him from Europe through Africa, the Middle East and South Asia before landing him in Beijing — a journey that provides the acrobatic troupe with ample opportunity for displays of local color. There, in the Forbidden City, he meets the young Chinese swan-woman (played by Wei’s wife Wu Zhengdan) he will make his bride.

Highlights include Swan Lake’s signature swan quartet turned into a cheeky comic routine for four male hand-balancing frogs. But the undoubted headliners are Wu and Wei, whose extraordinary commingling of dance and acrobatics has attracted upwards of two million hits on YouTube.

At the climax of the beguilingly bizarre Swan Lake, Wu playing the swan pirouettes on Wei’s shoulder, then on top of his head. She is on pointe, her body weight concentrated on one graceful tippy-tippy-toe. It’s breathtaking. Enjoy the performance:

What happens when someone stands on your shoulder on the toes of one foot, night after night? It’s not pretty. There’s a livid indentation in the Wei’s left shoulder — a permanently hardened and bruised muscle – where Wu’s ballet pointe shoe has worn a groove as she strikes remarkable poses on his finely tuned, powerful body. It’s clear that these two talented performers know the meaning of suffering for their art. And, as Wei Baohua and his wife, Wu Zhengdan, are the only people who can do this jaw-dropping stunt, they have no understudies and perform at every show. Ouch.

Swan Lake...Wu Zhengdan on pointe on the head of her husband Wei Baohua

The strongest relationships are based on trust. But pirouetting on your husband’s head on a nightly basis is surely taking trust to a whole new level.

Both Wu and Wei are products of a rigid system, the socialist-era sports school programs that are still geared toward producing Olympic champions. They grew up in Liaoning Province, in northeast China, and first met at the Shenyang Sports School, one of the region’s premier sports schools, when he was 16 and she 6. But Wu and Wei say they went by choice.  Wei was introduced to the sport through his father, an accountant at the local acrobatics school. Wu responded to an advertisement for a gymnastics program.

She was among 3,000 youths who tried out for 20 slots, but she didn’t make the cut.

“The teacher said I was not very tall, and a little fat — not good,” Wu said.

But a teacher from the local sports school saw her routine and asked her to join a eurhythmics program. And so she became a nearly full-time child athlete, usually training 10 hours a day. The teachers were strict, Wu recalled, forcing children to run endless laps around the track or to do splits by placing their legs on two separate chairs and holding a perfect position for 30 minutes at a time.

At 12, she joined the provincial sports school and began teaming up with Wei to compete in sports acrobatics, which involved human pyramids and synchronized athletic movements. Three years later, in 1995, the pair won the national championship. In that same year, in Germany, they were crowned world junior champions. But a year later, Wu fell during an event, injuring her neck. For a year, they didn’t compete. In 1997, they placed a disappointing third in the World Championships in Britain.

Wu was discouraged and weary of the training regimen. She considered quitting and entering a university. Wei was ready to leave the school and the sports acrobatic team himself, but he was also determined to win the world title. Eventually, the two joined the Guangdong Military Acrobatic Troupe, in the far southern city of Guangzhou. Their careers picked up. They won another national championship.

That year, the couple had begun to add some ballet and dance elements to their acrobatic routine with the help of Mr. Zhao, the choreographer, who was recruited by the Guangdong troupe to help develop routines in preparation for the world title event at the XXVI International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo in 2002. They took first prize.

The duo’s dedication to their craft has become central to the production’s impressive international success. Since it premiered in Beijing in 2006, Acrobatic Swan Lake has grown into a global phenomenon, packing out theatres from Moscow to New York thanks to its daring combination of spectacular circus-style stunts and a high level of balletic artistry. The high-adrenalin performances make it a real visual feast!

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