The Peking Acrobats bring the East to the Midwest

The Women's Peace Orchestra adds traditional Chinese music to the troupe's traditional acrobatics. Photo courtesy of Brittany App.

No matter how excited this story makes you, don’t do a backflip over it — leave that to the professionals.

This Sunday, the world-famous Peking Acrobats are coming to the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts as part of their 25th Silver Anniversary North American Tour.

Hailing from China, the Peking Acrobats are an extension of a 2,000-year-old artistic tradition initiated during China’s Ch’in dynasty, according to Cynthia Dike-Hughes, one of the show’s producers. At that time, she said, everyday people developed a series of simple yet astounding styles of acrobatics such as chair stacking, plate balancing, contortion, wire-walking and gymnastics.

“They had no cable, no Xboxes … you had to find ways for entertaining yourself, and that’s how acrobatics were born,” Dike-Hughes said.

The Peking Acrobats have a much more recent history. Dike-Hughes said the group was established in 1986 by her husband and co-producer, Don Hughes, and artistic director Ken Hai, who had worked together with a group of acrobats from Taiwan in the ’70s. After contacting the Chinese performing arts agency, they eventually gained permission to put together a troupe of Chinese acrobats to tour the United States, and eventually the world.

While this may seem unrevolutionary now, Dike-Hughes said the Peking Acrobats represented a breakthrough in the Cold War era, bringing awareness of Chinese culture to a Western audience.

“(The Peking Acrobats) were a way to break down barriers between East and West,” Dike-Hughes said.

Currently, the members of the troupe come from every corner of China, gathered from several specialty schools designed for acrobats. Dike-Hughes said these schools take students as young as 6, and split their days between traditional education in the morning and acrobatic training in the afternoon until they reach the Chinese age of maturity at 16.

At that point, she said, students are recruited by acrobatics troupes like the Peking Acrobats, although some of the more talented begin touring at age 13 or 14.

If that time frame feels fast, the show itself will look like a blur. Dike-Hughes said the variety of acts included in the Peking Acrobats’ shows occur one after another, without a lot of dead space.

“It’s a tour de force — don’t blink or you might miss something,” Dike-Hughes said.

For their 25th anniversary tour, she added, the Peking Acrobats are pulling out all the stops, making the show even more elaborate and exciting than ever.

One completely new twist is the addition of the Women’s Peace Orchestra of China, an all-female ensemble that performs using traditional Chinese instruments including the erhu, a two-stringed instrument that sounds similar to a viola; the pipa, a Chinese instrument somewhat analogous to the Western lute; and the yangqin, a percussion instrument that is a derivative of the hammered dulcimer or zither.

Dike-Hughes said they contacted the Women’s Peace Orchestra specifically to add a new dimension to their anniversary show. The acrobats are normally accompanied by live music, she said, but the traditional instrumentation supplied by the orchestra adds a new dynamic to the performance.

“Their playing is absolutely stellar,” Dike-Hughes said. “It just brings the show to a higher level.”

Of course, the Women’s Peace Orchestra isn’t the only all-new attraction the Peking Acrobats are bringing to the tour. While they will still include their usual acts, including the Lion Dance, a centuries-old tradition, Dike-Hughes said many of them have been retooled, and completely new acts have been added.

While she wouldn’t reveal the details about most of the show’s new acts, saying they will wow audiences better if kept a surprise, Dike-Hughes did describe one of her favorite new acts: an “adagio act” where a performer does seemingly effortless pointe ballet — on top of her partner’s head.

It’s the breathtaking bravery and vivacity of performances like that which Dike-Hughes believes keep audiences flocking back to the Peking Acrobats.

“They really have an amazing stage presence. … There’s a transference of joy,” Dike-Hughes said.

The Peking Acrobats will perform at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased from the box office at 414-273-7206 or online at marcuscenter.org.