Chinese acrobatics struggles with commercialization

SHIJIAZHUANG, Nov. 15 — Chinese acrobats took home almost all the prizes from the recent Wuqiao International Circus Festival (WICF) in north China’s Hebei Province, but their dominance ironically served to highlight weaknesses in the domestic acrobatics market.
Most of the winners at the festival, which closed on Monday, are from Chinese troupes that have been grappling with dwindling commercial performances due to lack of professional marketing and innovation.
Liu Jinggang, former head of Cangzhou Acrobatic Circus, a middle-sized troupe in Wuqiao County, also known as the home of acrobatics, recalled the golden days before the 1990s, at which point the Chinese market became monopolized by the state-controlled China Performing Arts Agency.
In the 1990s, an opening-up of China’s performance market introduced a slew of private performing groups, but also brought about fierce and homogeneous competition.
The monthly salary of an acrobat in the 1980s was 400 to 600 dollars, but the payment nowadays remains almost the same in an era witnessing serious inflation, according to Liu.
“Acrobats are now actually part-time workers hired by foreign sponsors to do whatever they ask with their payments accounting only one-tenth of the overall box office returns,” he said.
Foreign organizers have the say on the number of performers as well as usage of props, so we often have to come up with a low-cost show at their will, Liu complained.
This budgeting difficulty was echoed by others. “Our performances sometimes involve many acrobats and expensive props, so some are hesitant to invite us due to the possible cost,” said Qi Zhiyi, producer of a monocycle show presented at the WICF.
Liu’s troupe is not the single case in Wuqiao County, which has a history of aerial virtuosity stretching back around 2,000 years ago. There are more than 2,000 professional acrobats working in 37 state-owned and private troupes in the county, where acrobatic stunts are seemingly everywhere.
The biennial China Wuqiao International Circus Festival is considered one of the three most influential competitions in the world along with the Monte-Carlo International Circus Festival in Monaco and the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain — the World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow — in France.
However, in recent years these festivals have become the only stage for those presenting innovative spectacles of uncompromising quality.
“Only for festivals can we prepare shows of great innovation with huge input. Outside of festivals, because of economic concerns, there are only tedious and similar commercial shows like monocycles and flying trapeze,” said Zuo Jinying, a teacher from Wuqiao Acrobatics Art Institute (WAAI).
Fewer genuine showcase opportunities may not be a new problem plaguing the age-old industry, but the changing appetite of audiences has added difficulties to the status quo.
Lv Fengmei, another teacher from WAAI, said audiences show preference for acrobatics with aesthetics and cultural expression instead of simply technical prowess.
The number of different types of performance on show in Wuqiao has dropped from 300 to around 50 as many traditional acrobatic forms like fire-breathing and sword-swallowing have been deemed cruel and dangerous, Lv added.
“In order to meet the changing demands, our Wuqiao acrobats should strengthen innovation to better preserving the tradition,” Liu Jinggang urged.
He added that attention must also be paid to aspects including promotion, program planning and ticketing to form a mature industrial chain to help revive the industry.
“However, seeking balance between artistic inheritance and the market is a delicate issue, which requires time,” Liu stressed.[db:内容2]

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