BREATHTAKING SHOW: Acrobats of Xinjiang Acrobatic Troupe perform Darwaz, a kind of wire-walking stunt and a popular traditional heritage of Xinjiang on July 3 in Beijing (WAN XIANG)
Tourists and locals looking to escape the summer heat in Beijing have many options, ranging from an air-conditioned movie theater to an outdoor water park. But for culture seekers, one attraction stands out: an acrobatics show run by a traveling group based in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The show is called Yahximusiz, Apandi (meaning "Hello, Apandi" in English), which is presented by the Xinjiang Acrobatic Troupe at Tianqiao Acrobatic Theater. Apandi was a historical figure who lived during the 12th century and was known for possessing extraordinary wisdom and a strong sense of humor and justice. The legends about his life tell of Apandi's ability to help the poor while frustrating greedy plutocrats with his wit.
The performers showcased stunning aerial feats and unparalleled balancing acts that thrilled audience, which earned it several honors and awards, including its billing as one of the top 10 best theater dramas in China in 2009. By the end of March 2012, it had been performed in front of about 200,000 people and hit the stage more than 221 times.
Established in 1961, Xinjiang Acrobatic Troupe is the only minority acrobatic troupe in China featuring Uygur culture and theater art. The troupe has a total of 110 performers. Over 80 percent of the crew is Uygur and the rest come from other ethnic groups, including the Han, Kazak and Hui.
School of hard knocks
Attaining the level of flexibility, agility and balance needed to become a professional acrobat requires thousands of hours of hard work. Most performers are between 18 and 28 years old, but first began training at a very early age.
Ekber Abdurehim, a 19-year-old Uygur man, has been a veteran juggling performer with the troupe for years.
"I went to the performing arts school of the acrobatic troupe when I was just 6 years old," Abdurehim told Beijing Review.
Behind Abdurehim's youthful features lies the maturity of an adult. Born to a single mother in Urumqi, Abdurehim grew up as an only child. Despite the opposition of relatives, his mother sent him away to become an acrobat. He left the carefree life of childhood and entered a very competitive world.
"To be honest, the training days were really hard on me. But every acrobat has to overcome difficulties during the first few years of training," Abdurehim said.
"I usually spent eight hours training and another two hours studying every day when I was an apprentice."
Long and grueling training days often led to injuries among the acrobats.
In 2009, Abdurehim took part in a performance in a rural area soon after recovering from a sprained wrist. He pushed through the pain to flawlessly execute every difficult move, and the audience cheered in appreciation when he finished the performance.
"As a performer, I forget about the pain when I hear the applause on stage," Abdurehim said with a smile.
Three years ago, he graduated from the acrobatic school and became a full-time member of the troupe. His 11 years of training made him a stand-out performer and earned him the praise and support of the troupe's more experienced masters.
"As we know, Uygur people are good at dancing and singing. But on top of that, they also have a talent for acrobatics," Zhong Hao, director of the drama, told Beijing Review. Zhong is also a well-known drama director of the China National Theater for Children in Beijing. "Uygur people are always optimistic, no matter what difficulties they face," said Zhong, who traveled around Xinjiang to collect folk stories while researching for the show.
Some acrobats, like 24-year-old Ureyet Niyaz, make the seemingly impossible look easy.
Niyaz, an Urumqi native, balanced high atop a unicycle and flipped a stack of bowls from her foot onto her head during a rehearsal. Though she looks slender, her body is hardened from years of training and performing highly difficult stunts. Niyaz was only 11 years old when she entered into the acrobatic troupe.
Niyaz has practiced the bowl flipping stunt for nearly six years. In the beginning, repeated failures while practicing the stunt drove her to tears. But after countless hours of practice, the skill has become natural.
"Patience is the biggest merit of acrobats," she joked.
Like other women of her age, Niyaz often goes to karaoke with friends or watches television shows at home in her spare time. She already has plans for her future. "Most acrobats must retire early when they come to middle age. I hope to become an art director or an acrobatic teacher when I can no longer perform on stage," Niyaz said.