Head over heels for Chinese circus in Norwich

Circus theatre is really taking off. It combines acrobatics, dance and storytelling. ANDREW CLARKE spoke to producer and director Stephen Leatherhead about Cirque Du Ciel's Shang Hi, an aerial spectacular coming to Norwich Theatre Royal.

Theatre has always had the ability to astound and amaze, and works best when it transports audiences to new and exotic landscapes.

Despite cinema's reputation for producing ground-breaking special effects, the best effects happen in the theatre, where they are produced right in front of an audience's nose.

Next week Norwich Theatre Royal plays host to Chinese aerial theatre company Cirque du Ciel, who will create a colourful fantasy which combines narrative with stage illusion, audio-visual elements and circus skills.

The show has been put together by Guy Caron from Cirque du Soleil and has been developed into a theatre show by Stephen Leatherhead from Theatre Productions.

The company will be no strangers to this region with its latest extravaganza.

Last month they spent some time at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester for final rehearsals of the show and road-testing the multi-media elements before beginning a lengthy tour that brings them to Norwich next week and back again to Lowesoft in June.

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Writer, producer and co-director Leatherhead said the show has grown out of his fascination with China and its culture.

'I went to China about four, five years ago,' he recalls, 'and I was fascinated by China and the diversity of it. I love the heritage and the history of it.'

The show, entitled Shang Hi, tells the story of a young girl who is lured into a fantasy landscape that purports to be Shanghai, by two spirit guides.

'The storyline is about a young girl in Shanghai who has these dreams of becoming an acrobat,' Stephen said. 'She wakes in a half-dazed state to the noise, hustle and bustle of Shanghai and is transported into this fantasy world by these two characters, spirit guides; and the show follows her journey.'

The show is designed to tell a story through a mix of different media — including traditional stage magic tricks and state-of-the-art audio visual technology.

'It makes the evening appealing to a wide audience and particularly to younger people.

'It's a mix of acrobatic feats, colour, costume, lighting, music, sound – it's a total experience. Because it's Cirque du Ciel — circus of the sky — there's a lot of aerial stuff going on – dramatic silks where the girl just plunges from the gods down towards the stage, a drop of 30ft or more – just fantastic stuff. We have hoops that become planets which we project images onto – lots of aerial work which you would rarely see in a theatre.

'I love the fact that the barriers between different art forms and different types of theatre are being brushed aside. It's all up for grabs now.

'Also, there is a sense of magic which you can only experience in the theatre setting. Very simple tricks allow people to appear and disappear which would appear blas� if you saw it as a special effect on a cinema screen but right in front of you, in a live theatre, it makes quite an impression.

'We use it in the show. It's quite a simple trick but that's the beauty of magic; if you knew how the trick was achieved it wouldn't be quite so impressive. It's a great segment at the start of the show when she gets brought into their world, these spirit guides appear and disappear, so it's got all those theatrical elements but the story is told very much in the Cirque du Soleil tradition. It's circus with a story.'

The show was originally directed by Guy Caron from Cirque du Soleil but has been augmented by Stephen.

'I have worked directly with the Chinese cast. It's been an amazing experience – trying to put over what you want to achieve using hand gestures and the services of an interpreter.

'What I have discovered is that the artistic language is international.'

He says the show has been designed very much with theatre audiences in mind, rather than audiences looking for an impersonal spectacle.

He said they are using the fact that theatre audiences are looking for a story to be told and that the performers are going to be almost in the audience's laps or just over their heads.

'Our brief was to come up with a show that we could tour round theatres. So it will have an inherent sense of theatricality and my role within that is to make the story more prominent.

'Also, what is special is that if you are seeing the show in a theatre you are seeing it up close, so feats look even more spectacular. If you see it at the O2 or at a big arena, in somewhere like Las Vegas, you are at a remove.'

He said that as a result of his own trips to China they have developed an audiovisual prologue which will take the audience into the world of Shanghai.

'We overlay different images of China and just as importantly feed in different noises of China. We have got mountains, landscapes, sunsets – all those ethereal things which take people to a different land and allows them to use their imagination. It takes them through the window in the girl's bedroom into this fantasy world.'

Stephen said that he remains stunned by the performances he is witnessing in rehearsal.

'They are incredible at what they do. They are fantastically talented people. The show starts with these spirit guides encouraging her to do this hand dance routine; which she does for seven minutes, standing on one hand. And she's doing these amazing splits in the air and you think she is bound to fall over, but she does it all with such poise and perfect balance it's beautiful to watch.

'The scene-shifting is seamless; the story keeps moving the whole time. People say that they are amazed that time passes so quickly: because it is an endless assault on the senses. There is so much to take in and be amazed by. The culmination of the show features the Chinese monkey poles, which is quite astonishing. Their director used to specialise in monkey poles, so that is a standout part of the show.'

Having launched the tour in Colchester with a special charity performance the production certainly makes its presence felt wherever it goes — something that will no doubt be repeated here in Norwich.

'There are 31 performers in the company, so Norwich will be aware of our presence as groups of Chinese performers will be wandering through the city.'

? Shang Hi by Cirque Du Ciel, Norwich Theatre Royal, April 12-14, �27-�6.50, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

China & Circus — A Long History

? Acrobatic arts have a very long history in China and they are also the root of the Chinese circus tradition which the country now counts as a precious cultural heritage.

? The history of acrobatics in China can be traced back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), but the rudiments are probably much earlier, dating to ancient times when hunters had to cross mountains and rivers to dodge natural hazards.

? Physical dexterity became celebrated. Frescos of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) illustrate acrobatic feats such as handstands and plate spinning.

? Several places in China are renowned for acrobatics, but Wuqiao in Hebei Province is noted as circus central with a whopping 10% of its 280,000 population engaged in acrobatic-related work.

? Wuqiao acrobatics is divided into seven genres, all of which combine martial arts, magic and dance. Diabolo, flying hats, pole climbing, chair stacking and the 'pagoda of bowls' are the classic and perennially popular performances.

? By the early 20th century, Chinese acrobats had begun to perform abroad. In 1917, Wuqiao acrobat Sun Fuyou recruited more than 100 performers, ranging from martial arts, magic tricks, animal performances and sideshows, and toured his troupe around 30 countries.

? In 1920, another outstanding acrobat Sun Fengshan organized his Beijing troupe to perform in European cities such as Berlin, Paris and London. These two troupes were well received. More important, they introduced the rich heritage of China's acrobatic heritage to the world.