“Ancient” entertainment as captivating today as it was millennia ago

This week, the Sanderson Centre played host to the Peking Acrobats, a traveling troupe of obscenely talented performers who dazzle their audiences with a balanced combination of Eastern authenticity and spectacular physical feats. Music laden with sounds from bamboo flutes, an erhu (a two-stringed fiddle) and a yangqin (a tabletop string instrument that is struck gently with bamboo sticks to produce high, tinkling timbres) filled the air and helped to transport onlookers to an ancient time in a faraway, mystical land.

The internationally acclaimed acrobats’ history goes back a lot further than the collection of performances that Western audiences are now familiar with. Chinese acrobatics have been prevalent in the Eastern world for millennia, with records of ceremonial performances dating back to around 100 BC. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, when China underwent a radical shift towards Communism, that the art form gained a new respectability in that country. In the 1990s, Chinese acrobatics were repackaged and marketed to North American consumers as a complete show.

But “complete” doesn’t begin to describe the entertainment presented on the Sanderson Centre stage this week. What awe-struck onlookers were treated to went beyond expectations: impossibly elastic contortionists, meticulously choreographed stunts and terrifying feats of death defiance began promptly at 7:30 p.m. and relented, in its two-hour span, only for 15 minutes at the break. That’s just how overwhelmingly entertaining these athletes – and don’t even try to call the performers anything else – managed to be.

The pinnacle of the show came after the wildly costumed, two-man “dragon-dogs” ran throughout the expansive Sanderson Centre theatre and after the seemingly endless series of displays of things most people could only manage to do by accident when falling down the stairs or falling off a trampoline. As many audience members sat with mouths agape, some clutching their heads or covering their eyes, one daring acrobat performed the famous “Tower of Chairs” stunt. At the bottom of the tower was a sturdy metal table, on which stood four wine bottles, which supported the four legs of a standard wooden chair. The acrobat climbed atop that chair, only to stack on top of it another chair… followed by another, another and another until the acrobat, whose exceptionally chiseled physique made him resemble an early G.I. Joe action figure, was perched, nearly motionlessly, atop a 40-foot tower – just a few feet from touching the famously ornate Sanderson Centre theatre ceiling. Gasps and raucous applause were intermixed and offered by the astonished crowd.

Having visited the Sanderson Centre on a number of occasions to be entertained by everything from concerts to burlesque shows, this author has heard some applause in his day, from much larger crowds than the one present for the Peking Acrobats’ show. But, as I type this with hands still sore from clapping, I am thrilled to admit that I have never, ever heard so much appreciative noise made by a half-full Sanderson Centre theatre crowd. The Peking Acrobats put on an enchantingly riveting performance that deserved every last clap from every last pair of aching hands.

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