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Jumping through hoops: Peking Acrobats hurdle red tape to bring show to U.S.

When "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" hit theaters in 2000, the Chinese film stunned American audiences with the graceful and acrobatic fight scenes.

When "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" hit theaters in 2000, the Chinese film stunned American audiences with the graceful and acrobatic fight scenes.

Though the jaw-dropping stunts were aided by wires, pulleys and cranes, acrobatics date back 2,000 years in Chinese culture.

The Peking Acrobats, a troupe of tumblers, contortionists, jugglers and gymnasts, bring the ancient traditions to North Dakota State University's Festival Concert Hall tonight as part of the school's Lively Arts Series.

Although Chinese acrobatics have been around for two millennia, the popularity in the United States dates back only 30 years, says the show's producer, Don Hughes.

At that time, Hughes was in the business end of show business in South Africa. He was trying to find a replacement for a cancelled weeklong run of "A Little Night Music" when fourth generation acrobat Ken Hai invited him to a Peking Acrobats performance.

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"In the years I've been in the business, I've learned not to watch the shows, but watch the audiences," Hughes says. "People clap all the way through the show and at the end, they haven't got any clap left."

The show extended beyond just a replacement run and started to take off around the world. However, with Hughes, a South African, and artistic director Hai, who's Taiwanese, they had little success getting into China to recruit until the men became American citizens in 1985. The partners now produce shows around the world from their offices in Pismo Beach, Calif.

Hughes says since Sept. 11, getting visas for all the performers has been the biggest hurdle in working with the Chinese troupe.

The ensemble consists of 24 acrobats and the Beijing Orchestra, combining musical flair with the visuals for a cultural experience.

"It's an important cultural event, because we need to know how the other half of the world lives," Hughes says.

Most of the acrobats are in their late teens or early 20s, though the producer says sometimes performers go professional as young as 10.

"In China, if you want your child to be something, you send them to (a specialized) school," Hughes says.

After academic classes end in the morning, rigorous physical training starts in the afternoon making for 12-hour days, six days a week.

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The rigorous training helped launch Shaobo Qin's film career. The slight acrobat played contortionist/gymnast Yen in the 2001 remake of "Ocean's Eleven," a role he'll reprise when filming begins next month on "Ocean's Twelve."

The show doesn't even have a ring master, but what it lacks in star power it makes up for in spectacular stunts. The troupe recently set the world record for a human chair stack with six people on six chairs reaching 21 feet in the air.

Known as the "Pagoda of Chairs," the piece prompted a Ballet Dance Magazine reviewer Jeff Kuo to write, "just counting the chairs... doesn't quite convey the breath-holding experience. As one of my audience members quipped -- it's something like watching the Indy 500, waiting for a car wreck."

"They take a great act and make it better and they do it and I'm blown away," Hughes says. "My palms still sweat after all these years when they do the chair act."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

What: Peking Acrobats

When: 7 tonight

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Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU

Tickets: Tickets range from $6 to $13. (701) 231-7969

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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