Applause and Bated Breath: Taiwan Acrobats Dazzle Overseas Audiences

Liu Chin-li, who took over the reins at NTCPA last August, is committed to improving the quality of training and upgrading the school’s facilities, while actively promoting internationalization. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Liu Chin-li, who took over the reins at NTCPA last August, is committed to improving the quality of training and upgrading the school’s facilities, while actively promoting internationalization. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Taiwan Acrobatic Troupe turns 30 this year. Sponsored by National Taiwan College of Performing Arts (NTCPA), it is Taiwan’s sole professional acrobatic performance team. Over the course of three decades, the troupe has upheld and developed a performing tradition, nurturing a bevy of talent. In step with the times, it is actively internationalizing, adding elements such as fantastical plots and hi-tech audio and lighting effects. Positioned between the traditional and the innovative, the accent is on delivering a compelling spectacle.


Sweat and tears

At 5:50 in the morning, students at NTCPA’s Neihu campus are energized and have already commenced the substantial set of exercises that they repeat, day in and day out. “Once or twice weekly, I find time to arrive early and watch the children’s morning training.” Professor Liu Chin-li, president of NTCPA, uses his attendance to concretely express his care and concern for teachers and students.

“Hone your fundamental skills or they will decline,” says troupe director Wang Tung-yuan. “There can be no stopping.” He joined the troupe upon graduation among the inaugural class of students from the Department of Acrobatics at National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy (NTCPA’s forerunner), at the same time as Wang Hsi-chung, the troupe’s current deputy director and formerly a member of Lee Tang-hua Acrobatics Troupe. For three decades, Wang Tung-yuan has insisted on training each day.

Training in challenging acrobatic maneuvers such as stacking, balancing, bouncing and tumbling goes on almost daily inside the Chung-Hsing Hall gymnasium on NTCPA’s Neihu campus.

NTCPA recruits fifth-grade pupils, who reside on campus where they lead a disciplined collective lifestyle.

The troupe logo resembles a bird in flight, its wings outstretched, an allusion to the importance of suppleness in acrobatics. “It uses a tangram image to visualize how a performer’s body is capable of numerous contortions,” explains marketing manager Huang Fu-chun. Inspired by this origami-like image, she has also created a series of elegant poems for use in publicity.

Whether she’s raising her legs high, twisting while prone, or even conversing with people, choreographer Shih Wan-chi continues spinning a plate on a long stick without a pause. One acrobat lies on the floor, practicing “drum kicking” by using his toe-tips to effortlessly rotate a weighty drum more than 60 centimeters in dia­meter. “They undergo at least eight years of basic skills training. Just to develop strong wrists and ankles takes at least six months to a year, otherwise they won’t attain the stability required,” assures Wang. Cultivating an acrobat is no mean feat in itself, and Wang Tung-yuan is proud of the professionalism of each troupe member.

There are countless maneuvers in the acrobatic reper­toire, and it is very rare for a performer to ­master more than three or four. “Pole carrying for the pole-scaling act is my specialty,” says Wang Tung-yuan, revealing the thick, rough calluses on his shoulders born of many years of practice, indelible traces of the sweat and tears expended in honing his skills. The acrobat initially graduates from bamboo to aluminum poles, and even the weight of the pole alone is punishing. Scrapes and bruises during training are inevitable.

Artistic director Yang Yi-chuan points to a long pole that stands nearly six meters high. “Never mind for an ordinary person, even those of us acrobats who haven’t trained for this would get dizzy mounting that pole!” A round, sturdy rope made of coarse cotton attached to a belt around her waist, a female troupe member nimbly ascends the pole, and once at the top, she stretches out her limbs. “When we start training, we use safety equipment, naturally. But when it comes to the actual performance, then everything depends on real skill.”

Acrobatics are inherently very risky, and coupled with unpredictable variables posed by the venue, each and every performance is a gamble. This is especially true of aerial acts, such as the crowd-favorite “aerial silk.” Not only must one possess great physical strength and agility, but unusual courage and sheer nerve too. And since performers rely totally upon one another, collaboration must be seamless.

“Soar like an Eagle” emphasizes teamwork, balanced use of strength, and coordination. (photo by Kent Chuang)

“Soar like an Eagle” emphasizes teamwork, balanced use of strength, and coordination. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Classic acrobatics wow overseas Chinese audiences

“‘Soar Like an Eagle’ is one of our classic programs.” The formation is often the centerpiece of large-scale shows and wins enthusiastic applause from the whole audience. The acrobats balance upside down with the help of wooden chairs of various sizes, using the chairs’ feet, seats and back rails as fulcrum points. They use the strength of their bodies and limbs to maintain their balance, creating a dazzling array that can nearly match the height of a two-story building.

Select troupe members, known as “spotters,” stand by watching attentively, poised to act in order to ensure the safety of the performers. “This sort of team act must be practiced several hundred times to develop perfect rapport.” Whether in midair or on the ground, the hearts and minds of dozens of troupe members must be as one at the moment of performance.

Over the past three decades, Taiwan Aerobatics Troupe has had eight directors, beginning with Lee Tang-hua, who founded the group, to Cheng Rom-shing, who later served as NTCPA’s first president. Each of them has conscientiously led the troupe to make its best showing possible.

The troupe cooperates closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Overseas Community Affairs Council and other government bodies. In 2017-19 alone, it gave 75 commercial performances in Taiwan and 46 overseas, making for a very tight schedule. The painstakingly arranged programs always inspire a joyous, festive and auspicious atmosphere. Not only do they warm the hearts of overseas compatriots, the stunning acrobatics also convey the Taiwan spirit.

Since 2001, at the invitation of Columbia Artists Manage­ment, Inc., the troupe has three times traveled to North America for three-month tours, sometimes exceeding 80 performances per tour and more than 250 over three years, all the while getting good reviews and filling the house. “The overseas Chinese have been so welcoming. It’s been very moving,” says Wang Tung-yuan.

Wang still remembers how, on the day of one performance, some local ethnic Chinese turned up with piping-­hot hometown delicacies for the hungry troupe. After the show, they took the troupe out for midnight snacks and made merry with them till dawn. “Our national flag hung from all four walls of the restaurant. That’s the kind of ambience you never forget.”

“Cirque contemporain” in vogue worldwide

“The concept of cirque contemporain [‘contemporary circus’ or ‘new circus’] is increasingly gaining attention across the world,” says Liu Chin-li. In November 2019, as Kaohsiung’s Weiwuying Circus Platform entered its fourth year, a memorandum of cooperation was signed between three parties: Liu Chin-li for NTCPA, Wei­wu­ying artistic director Chien Wen-pin, and Gérard Fasoli, artistic director of the Centre national des arts du cirque, the cradle of French contemporary circus talent. The memorandum detailed a three-year scheme for skills training and creative career development between the three institutions, targeting both Taiwanese and French circus professionals.

“This is also the first time that the workshop has taken place on campus,” says Liu Chin-li. Liu, who took over as president of NTCPA in August 2019, has won training funds worth NT$100 million (about US$3.3 million) over four years via the Ministry of Education’s “Higher Education Sprout Project” to improve the quality of training, upgrade the training facilities, and assure a safer training environment. He has also proactively promoted internationalization. In the future, he hopes to join forces with countries in the pan-Pacific region to build a sustainable development environ­ment for contemporary circus creation through participation in the Circus Asia Network.

The troupe strives to promote cross-disciplinary works that integrate other performing arts, such as music, dance and drama, and thereby ignite new fireworks. A children’s stage play, A Race to Win the Bride, scripted, directed and produced by the troupe, incorporates many acrobatic numbers that enrich and diversify the work’s visual ­impact.

Troupe members run through a daily training routine to maintain optimal fitness and skills. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Troupe members run through a daily training routine to maintain optimal fitness and skills. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Technology: Creating infinite possibilities

“We use state-of-the-art photographic and virtual reality techniques to create the illusion that the acrobats are performing among clouds and atop volcanoes. Liu Chin-li prides himself on the troupe’s use of multi­media and hi-tech to engender an unparalleled sense of three-dimensionality.

“My body is art.” Combining power and beauty, one minute on stage signifies a decade of off-stage effort. Even as salty sweat stings their eyes, the acrobats must grit their teeth and smile; only by persisting in the face of hardship can one achieve great things.

“As the audience’s thunderous applause sounds, all your pain is forgotten.” To win an audience’s endless cheering and clapping for your virtuoso performance, you must first invest in the most rigorous training. “When they give you that sincere feedback, you feel like a genuine artist.” The acrobat seeks a modest return—just a bit of respect and encouragement.