Risky Business: Challenge or Danger?

by SM Group
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A circus training school in Beijing
A circus training school in Beijing

I am traveling in China this month and I caught show at a circus training program in Beijing. In many ways it was similar to the training program I observed in Montreal that feeds Cirque du Soleil: performers training at a young age in several acrobatic genres. The Beijing performers were younger, but that matches the cultural norms for some families sending children to dormitory schools as young as kindergarten. But the biggest difference was the level of physical risk in the circus acts.

In addition to the standard juggling and balancing acts, tonight had a tandem aerial silk act and what I know as the Wheel of Death: two ‘hamster wheels’ attach to a single arm that also rotates. This is my least favorite circus act due to the high physical risk, the dependence of the performer running outside the wheel on the performer inside the other wheel, and the inability of the stage manager to do anything during the act and even immediately following an emergency. The aerial silk act also had a few moments in which one performer clung only to another performer’s neck 15+’ up with no mat or even sprung floor.

As stage managers, we see risks like designers see color: we notice details and connections that the ordinary eye might miss in looking at the big picture. When I attend acrobatics and circus-style performances, I want to be amazed by the level of challenge and not necessarily the level of danger. I love group juggling acts or seeing 9 acrobats on a single bicycle because I know how challenging it can be to coordinate such a feat. I also love the slow balancing acts where two or three performers will create a tower relying on nothing but their own muscle, dexterity, and sense of balance. Sure, there is some physical risk that they could fall, but the point is to be impressed by their skill rather than their luck.

What I did love about tonight is that they put a couple of the newer/weaker acts right after the opening number to show that mistakes happen. A poor young man lost control of his juggling balls and a young woman lost the top champagne glass in a balancing act (proving that they were plastic). These mishaps (and the tipped glass may have been intentional) made the audience aware that these were indeed feats and not certainties. Had the night been flawless, we would not have been so impressed by what we saw.

Lastly, I was also reminded of some vaudevillians who were ending their careers just as I was starting mine. Producing a straight play but need to add a quick juggling number between scenes? No problem. Want to a do a hat bit for a some much needed levity? They had the skills. In our abbreviated rehearsal schedules, there is no time to learn these skills while on a production, so are American actors learning enough physical “tricks” to keep in their toolkits? You never know when you might need to rise to the challenge….