Chinese acrobats to perform at the Mahaiwe tonight



Chinese contortionist Miao Miao Chen looks like she is about to raise herself into a standard handstand, with both arms firmly planted on the stage beneath her, supporting her weight as one leg slowly rises up over her head. A partially lit candelabra sits in front of her and soon, she places one lighted candle between the toes of her left leg. While her arms remain resolutely straight, her right leg curves in the air as she moves her left leg over her head, placing her foot in front of her face as she lights the candelabra's sole unlit candle. The audience responds with rapturous applause.

This moment comes from a segment featured on the short-lived ABC TV talent show "Master of Champions" posted on YouTube. The video displays Chen's unique talent -- the ability to appear graceful while folding her body in strange contortions that look like they should be physically impossible. It's only a small sampling of the kinds of feats of strength and precision that will be on full display for Berkshire audiences today when Cirque Shanghai, the circus that Chen choreographs and directs, comes to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center with its latest touring show, "Bai Xi."

The theater will hold two performances of the show, one at 10 a.m. for area schools, followed by a public performance at 7 p.m.

In English, the show's title translates to "100 wonders." Chen said the name directly references China's rich acrobatic tradition.

"It goes back to our history from over 1,000 years ago," Chen said by telephone from Dolly Parton's Smokey Mountains theme park, Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. "Only the best troupes and performers would perform for the emperor. They'd prove themselves to him. Our show brings that back -- we are giving you the best."

It's a performance tradition that has been rooted deeply in Chen's life. Chen was raised by performer parents -- her mother is a singer and her father is what Chen called a "stage host and entertainer."

Finding that Chen was extremely flexible as a little girl, her parents made the decision to send her to school to train as a contortionist. She was only 6 years old when she started performing.

"I started performing in these troupes that had mostly boys, and we would get to perform on talent shows on TV in China," Chen said. "I loved it and it was a lot more fun than studying and going to school."

Chen stopped performing three years ago and now is theatrical director for Cirque Shanghai's productions, serving as a mentor to the young performers who, like her, have dedicated themselves to perfecting an ancient art.

"You can't last very long doing the contortion act that I did, there are so many injuries, it's very punishing on your body," Chen said.

As a director and a mentor, Chen said she can help guide the young performers, many of whom started as young as 5 years old. Chen said young acrobats in China practice eight to 10 hours a day. This practice regimen consists of regular morning training, with another hour after breakfast, followed later at night with more practice.

It's a grueling schedule. Chen said Chinese acrobats will stay with performance schools for at least five to eight years, perfecting their craft before auditioning for large circus troupes that recruit throughout the country.

The troupe selection process happens each year. Chen and her team will observe each group perform their own traveling acts in different cities, before deciding which one is good enough to make the cut.

Performing in "Bai Xi" requires a level of perfection and discipline that makes for an impressive display, said Beryl Jolly, the Mahaiwe's executive director.

Containing acts titled "the giant Wheel of Destiny," "the group Swinging pole act," and the "motorbike Globe of Death," Cirque Shanghai promises to dazzle audience members of all ages, Jolly said.

"With a show like this, you have kids and adults holding their breath, and this sense of awe that ripples around the house," Jolly said by telephone from her office.

Part of the family-friendly appeal of the show, might stem from the performers' familial connection behind the scenes. Chen and her performers spend virtually all of their time together as they travel throughout the United States.

The group has just finished a stint at Dollywood and will spend the entire summer in Chicago.

"What really stands out about this group is (Chen's) choreography," Jolly said. "There is an element of choreography and artistry from an adult woman's perspective that I'm looking forward to seeing myself."

With so many groups clearly inspired by the popular French-Canadian group, Cirque du Soleil, which combines operatic theatrics with traditional circus performance, it is difficult for a troupe like Cirque Shanghai to stand out.

What makes her group different, Chen said, is that "we have our own energy that is uniquely Asian. We have modern [showmanship] combined with Chinese tradition."

On Stage

Who: Cirque Shanghai

What: "Bai Xi"

When: Tonight at 7

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Tickets: $35 (adults; $25 (children 12 and under)

How: (413) 528-0100; ; at the box office


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