Cirque Shanghai Extreme

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Cirque Shanghai can’t be faulted for a little bit of riding on the coattails of Cirque du Soleil (how often is French spoken in Chinese acrobatic circles?). The latter troupe has created a multimillion dollar industry using techniques, and oftentimes actual personnel, borrowed from the acrobatic schools sponsored throughout China by the government. Every Soleil show owes a debt to the developments made by Chinese acrobatic groups. So Cirque Shanghai has returned the favor by hoping to piggyback on the enormous success of the Montréal entrepreneurs. More power to them. It should be said however, this is where the similarities between the two companies end.

Every summer, Cirque Shanghai brings an army of spectacular performers for a lengthy run at Navy Pier’s Skyline Stage. The current show, Cirque Shanghai Extreme, runs through September 5, and the approach is all thrills with no bloated attempts at theater. The performers roll out nonstop routines, all highly developed and demanding of serious chops, a dozen or more in a row, for seventy-five minutes with no intermission: motorcycle routines, contortionists, a pair of strongmen balancing single-handedly upon one another’s heads, a gang of twelve hat jugglers, tumblers balancing three-high on top of a ladder, motorcycles on tight ropes, MORE motorcycles — this time spinning upside down inside a see-through steel globe.

The performances are big on knock-your-socks-off skill and low on nuanced artistry. Clearly, every stiff smile has been choreographed, every “connecting” look at the audience scripted. It is spectacle and there are costumes, but there is no pretense, no episodic storyline, no extraneous gimmickry — simply all bravado performance, all the time. The music is not performed by live musicians well-versed in folk genres from around the world, as with other companies, but is instead the kind of pop music you might hear while strolling through a Beijing mall, piped in through enormous banks of speakers.

There was the obligatory portion of the show when an unsuspecting audience member is brought up on stage, and, to their great mortification (schadenfreude at its best), subtly pressured into joining the performance. In this case, three less than optimally fit men were plucked from the audience by two slight male dancers dressed in spandex tuxedos. The pluckees were taught a series of increasingly more difficult — and eventually impossible to duplicate — breakdance moves set to a 1990s techno soundtrack. Being good-natured fellows, they hammed it up and the audience hooted and howled. Even the teenage sullen daughters and surly sons of the “volunteers” roared with laughter.

It’s not Cirque du Soleil. Less theater, more thrills; less art, more action. The ticket prices are about half as much, and there are always good seats available all the way up to showtime. Cirque Shanghai is the other big circus (not counting the trained animal ones, a whole different thing altogether) which rolls through town every year. Lucky us, both are great.

John Paris

About John Paris

Born in Cincinnati, raised in California, John has lived in a lot of great cities -- Montréal, San Francisco, Boston -- but now calls Chicago home sweet home, and has done so longer than anywhere else. Leaving the hills behind, he has found comfort in the flatness of one of the largest grids in the world. Neighborhoods divided into quadrants, divided into city blocks, divided into equal rectangular plots would seem to be a recipe for a grim, constricted civic culture. Not so, says John -- we Chicagoans are blessed by our situation. As inhabitants within the template of boulevards, and streets, and avenues, we dance on a perfect dance floor. The swirling, tumbling activity of circular pegs amused by square slots is the real creative genius of this fair city. Onward circular pegs!

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