The Chinese acrobats come tumbling out of their two mini vans, laughing and teasing each other as they carry their equipment onto the stage. By the measure of some of the troupes we’ve seen at the theater, these guys are a bit older, but they’re still mostly teenagers. Through the door comes a tall stool, a high wire, a unicycle, various sized rings, plates, sticks, straw hats, giant yo-yos, and what looks like an oversized teeter-totter board. Then behind the stage equipment comes the kitchen supplies. Two rice cookers you might buy at any department store, and a large electric wok, together with numerous bags of vegetables. All of these go straight to the Green Room kitchen.
On stage, every person has his or her task. With a charming combination of military precision and teenage enthusiasm, the young men and women take over the space – bolting equipment together, unpacking props, marking the floor with white tape. One slight-looking young man walks around with a small laser pointer, illuminating items above the stage that need to be moved or adjusted. Four strapping lads climb the sixty-five feet to the top of the grid over the stage and start lowering steel cables to hang the aerial equipment.
To help things move smoothly, the troupe has a translator named John. He spends most of his time on his phone playing video games, or wandering the building looking for coffee. Obviously this isn’t his first tour. Meanwhile, the tour manager, Landon, who is from Branson, Missouri, explains what we need to know for the show. He sets up his laptop with their music and tells us what the lights should look like.
Suddenly, it’s lunchtime. The Green Room door opens and the smell of garlic, ginger and spicy sauces wafts towards the stage. The chefs have been busy preparing the native cuisine of the Anhui Province, which is where this troupe is from. Performers wander around holding bowls of steaming vegetables and rice. I am jealous.
Breaktime over, the performers get down to rehearsals. They have just added a couple of new acrobats who they picked up at the airport in Chicago last night. They practice carefully, with great attention to detail. Then take a two-hour break to rest.
At eight pm the show begins. Lights dim and then the performers appear in brightly coloured outfits. First up are the hat jugglers – tossing straw hats from one performer to the next, while somersaulting or standing on each other’s shoulders. After them comes a woman who can balance an ungodly amount of cups on her arms, legs and head. Then a woman balancing on one hand while doing absurdly difficult poses in mid-air. She must have the strongest core muscles in the troupe. A net is lowered from the sky, and a girl climbs into it and flies into the air spinning and twirling in the spotlight, before dramatically plunging earthwards, only to stop just off the ground, to the gasps of the audience. The plate-spinners are next – each performer in the ensemble keeping at least six plates in the air on long sticks while they jump, roll and generally do impossible things – to the point that you think those plates must be glued on to the sticks somehow, until they finish the act by letting everything come crashing to the floor on the final note - so you know it was real. It goes on through the intermission, with amazing jump-rope routines, glow-in-the-dark yo-yos, a unicycle on a tightrope, more flying on silks, and some mind-boggling gymnastic hoop-diving.
The final number involves that teeter-totter board. The music grows tense as two performers climb to the top of a ten-foot-high stool. Below them is the high side of the teeter-board. On the other side of the board stands a young woman, perfectly poised. And some distance behind her is one of the new guys from China, holding aloft a golden chair on a long, long red wooden pole. The two guys step off the stool and hurtle to the ground, landing on the teeter board. As their end of the board goes down, the girl on the other end is launched into the air, turning two graceful backflips before landing perfectly in the golden chair. The audience gasps, then applauds as the girl is lowered to the ground again.
The troupe bows for the crowd and the curtain closes. Immediately, the performers start taking everything apart. In less than ninety minutes, the stage is clean and everything is loaded back into the trailer. The kids pile back into the mini vans and they head for their hotel. On the way out, they ask if there is a mall nearby. They have a day off tomorrow, and they are no different than any group of American teenagers, it seems.
We are left with nothing except a few pieces of straw hat, and a battered Chinese fan. But just in case, I’m going to check the Green Room for leftovers…