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When I was a kid living in Taipei, my father used to take me to the Chinese variety show, a potpourri of comedy routines, folk arias, operatic highlights, and acrobatic maneuvers. I was particularly drawn to the daredevil gymnastics, but my father scoffed at them, telling me they were not equal to the mainland tradition, which incorporated tumbling, juggling, and contortion into stories. Years later, when I saw the famed acrobats of Shanghai, I understood: a narrative puts all the dazzling physical stunts in context, giving each movement a rationale and suspense. Breathtaking feats of dexterity and stamina have been a staple of village entertainment for well over two centuries: the form’s peasant roots explain why the most common props are household objects like tables, chairs, plates, and jars as well as why itinerant acrobats of the past ranked no higher than bandits in the social order. During feudal times, orphans and abandoned children who showed promise of beauty and strength were likely candidates for acrobatic troupes and were subjected to grueling, even sadistic training. Times have changed, of course, but at Taiwan’s National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy–founded 30 years ago with the government’s help–the curriculum is still rigorous, with courses in martial arts, dance, music, and literature. Its graduates–among the best acrobats in the world, combining superb athleticism with acting skills–make the tumblers and contortionists of Cirque du Soleil look like Little Leaguers. This program from the National Acrobats of China, one of Fu Hsing’s touring companies, reprises four of the troupe’s greatest hits. One details the exploits of Hua Mulan, which involve dozens of plates; another depicts the many-armed goddesses in the Buddhist cave of Dunhuang. But my favorite features a girl balancing more and more objects on a shoulder pole–if only I could balance my finances with the same finesse. Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. Sunday, November 1, 3 PM. $17-$34; half price for children.

–Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.