When Cirque Mei from the People's Republic of China comes to Tilles Center on Sunday, they'll be presenting incredible flips, tumbles and acrobatic skills, but also one of the oldest, richest artistic cultures in the world.
Hebei province outside of Beijing, from which the troupe hails, is filled with historic temples, gardens and palaces. It was the summer residence of Qing emperors centuries ago, and it's easy to imagine courtly audiences thrilling to the artistry and athleticism of traditional Chinese acrobats like Cirque Mei. The enduring popularity of these ancient arts has kept them alive — that and the sheer dedication of the performers.
"They begin training at the circus school between the ages of 6 and 8," says the troupe's director Li Ming through interpreter Aihong Pei. "It takes about 10 years," he adds, to perfect their jaw-dropping leaps, balancing feats and contortions of the human form. And while they honor old ways, Ming says, "All the acts have traditional roots with a contemporary twist. …The acrobats are able to take bits from Chinese wushu (martial arts), opera, dance and magic tricks mixed with the skills that create our show."
"It's one of the greatest cirque companies in the world," says William Biddle, Tilles Center's executive director. "They combine that incredible athleticism with art, and especially the ancient and sacred arts that the Chinese have been performing for years."
The 40 Cirque Mei members dazzle with aerial acts, acrobatics, balancing tricks, and traditional music and dance. Women in vibrant gowns perform the famous "sleeve dance" from the Peking Opera, tossing and twirling elongated sleeves into graceful arcs of color. The "Adagio Duo," says Ming, features male dancers and is based on traditional martial arts, "and the Lion Dance is a well-known traditional Chinese act that dates back thousands of years."
Lively sounds of guzheng (Chinese zither) and drum back the show as performers throw other performers to yet other performers who are standing on the shoulders of others. Women juggle umbrellas with their feet, balance spinning dishes on poles, and 12 of them balance on one cycle. "The girls love to perform the bicycle and umbrella act the most," says Ming. "The entire show was choreographed and put together at the end of 2018 with a mix of traditional Chinese and modern." Acrobats jump through hoops. Aerialists dangle and drop from incredible heights. It's all quite spectacular, and yet, it's also more. Cirque Mei brings exciting entertainment and cultural impact together.
"We're providing a window on the world of what's happening artistically in China," Biddle says. "Enlightening us a little bit more about the world while at the same time having a good time. … We offer cultures from around the world so that we get out of our own little silos. It makes the world smaller, so that we're not so disconnected."
WHAT Cirque Mei
WHEN | WHERE 6 p.m. Sunday, Tilles Center, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville
INFO $36-$66; 516-299-3100; tillescenter.org