Cultured Carnies

Courtesy National Acrobats of TaiwanWhat's so funny about the word “carny”anyway? Nearly every frat boy I ever met always had a joke about a carny—that or midgets. It was one of those things where the jocks had a word club or something, except the word had no literary appeal, like “sweet” or “dank” or “carny”—only the mind-numbing value of repetition, so they would use it at every opportunity, multiple times in a sentence.

True carny lovers see beyond a funny word; they know circus folk are an unusual breed—closer to gymnasts, with their keen sense of discipline and focus, than Jack Kerouac. So it is with the National Acrobats of Taiwan, who present their weirdly carnival art with a surgeon's precision.

Founded in 1980, the troupe's members train nearly all their young lives at the National Fu Hsing Academy before going pro—so what you see is a life's work, despite their youth. According to artistic director Lo Jih-Hung, many students work with coaches from the age of one (yes, one) before auditioning for the National Fu Hsing Academy when they turn 11. Their path mirrors the tactics of the national ballet schools in Russia, where little kids are measured, X-rayed and folded into little pretzel shapes so that the judges can determine their athletic potential. Only a lucky 50 Taiwanese students are accepted.

Entirely on the state's dime (wouldn't it be cool if George Bush opened a National Acrobatic School for us?), young acrobats study math, science, acrobatics, dancing, music, kung fu and opera eight hours per day and practice for another six. Upon graduation, the top students enter the 35-member troupe. They're the lucky ones whom you'll see in Irvine. Lucky and slender; not Maria Shriver slender, but getting there.

Granted an audience via telephone, I asked Jih-Hung about special dietary restrictions—because I once had a friend who was “dating” a Russian rhythmic gymnast via letter, and she would write things like “Three days water, one day salad.” Jih-Hung says that although they do have special diets, the students eat three meals per day. The school's focus isn't on diet, but rather on channeling that food-given energy. During their developmental years, he says, students develop specialties they will perfect over their lifetime. The little boys lean toward handstands and tumbling, while the girls prefer the vaguely Ed Sullivan-esque plate dance and the yo-yo.

Chinese acrobatic performances, I learn, diverge from the Cirque du Soleil prototype. Instead of story lines and Fauvist colors, performers master “village” arts, working with common items such as plates, yo-yos, bottles, knives, ladders, tables and parcels of decommissioned military land. (Wait, sorry, that's the job of a Great Park Corporation Board.) Chinese acrobatic performances consist of many mini acts, each reflecting traditional Chinese themes. Acrobats also play music and dance, and each routine is accompanied by a verdant poem advocating various character traits.

Sound antiquated? Well, yeah: as it was in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-240 A.D.), so shall it be with Taiwan's national acrobats. Chinese acrobats may have been the first people to use parachutes in the 1300s—nearly 200 years before Leonardo da Vinci actually drew them—but today, the company and the school are trying to preserve a thousand-year-old folk art in a culture much like our own, where yo-yos went out with Ed Sullivan. We'll see how they do.


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