When it was announced at the new season launch for the 2012 Mercury Theatre programme, there was a faint feeling among those present that a Chinese spectacular would never fit onto the Colchester stage. Such shows are more usually seen in cavernous multi-purpose buildings. Cirque du Ciel’s première production of Shang Hi proves that it can do very well in a conventional playhouse.
It has a linking narrative of a young girl whose restless sleep in a bustling Chinese city is broken by dreams. She’s a sort of Swanhilda (from Coppélia) with her curiosity and, like Pandora, she opens a magic box to reveal – well, in this case, it’s marvels. The stage is filled with acrobatic acts alternatively graceful and rumbustious as two glittering performers representing the moon and the sun guide her through her adventure.
Some of the acts have moments which are close to western classical ballet, though you’re unlikely to find any ballerina en pointe on top of her partner’s head. The costumes are mainly svelte in shape with good detailing and colours, and the cast is engagingly young as well as nerve-rackingly agile. Some of the acts use recorded music; others have an accompaniment of live drumming and percussion.
The format allows the audience to become more than mere spectators as goblets are twirled on skipping ropes, boys juggle hats and create human pyramids, girls stretch themselves into convoluted patterns while high on hoops or poles, all within inches of the front row. It’s often said that dance conceals the effort and gymnastics reveal it. This show offers true elegance as well as excitement for its audience.