Circus News

From the Archive: Up Close with the Students of the Shanghai Circus School

lt’s a tradition stretching back more than 3,000 years, a secret passed from master to disciple across the ages. Now Chinese acrobatics is battling for attention against an emerging global entertainment culture. On the west side of Shanghai, 89 students and a visionary Leader are keeping the faith.

Luo Xu sometimes compares herself to a bird. lt is not because she is tiny and graceful, rather like a sparrow. And it is not because she can fly (though “flying person” is in fact her job description in Chinese). Luo Xu compares herself to a bird because up here in the rafters, 20 metres above ground, she is in her element. This rope ladder is her perch. Her aerie. The place she spends the better part of every day. In keeping with her job description, she may occasionally soar from here to there, but mostly she just hangs around. lt is not scary up here. lt is not especially fun. lt is just the way it is. Same as for a bird.

The people on the ground? They are only specks to Luo. She rarely even notices them. She has a best friend and hobbies and a favourite colour (pink) to be sure, but they all belong to the world below. Up here she must forget them. Think of nothing. Only concentrate. She watches the boy on the swing, gauging the speed of his approach. She listens to (but does not look at) her coaches, who holler instructions from the floor. And when the moment comes, Luo readies herself to fly.

Slung in a harness just beneath her, his sturdy legs set wide apart, Zhi Fei Cao is waiting. He is the one who hurls Luo Xu, sends her tiny body soaring. Zhi Fei is a big boy, nearly twice her size, but he is delicate and careful with Luo, and this she really appreciates. Despite the difference in their ages (she is ten but could pass for seven; he is 16) Luo and Zhi Fei are fast friends down on earth. Up here, though, they are aerialists, bound by something different from friendship, something even stronger…

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