Roll up, roll up - the circus is in town, bringing a troupe of China's fearless acrobats to the Manawatu to set audiences' pulses racing with a high-flying, motorbike-riding, aerial spectacular Out of this World at Manfeild Park this weekend. Talia Shadwell meets the Zirka Circus performers.
The Zirka Circus is the love child of three generations of a family of acrobats and magicians from a small province on the outskirts of Beijing.
Under the wing of the Hou family, the circus has blossomed from a traditional magic-peddling troupe from the 1970s to a sparkling, sensual assault that clocks up as many acrobatic stunts as it does air miles, touring hundreds of performers globally every year.
And then there are the stunt riders on motorbikes.
Zirka Circus director Jeni Hou is one of a long line of performers in her family but, she thinks, the only woman in the world leading a contemporary circus troupe.
Hou and her family hail from the Hebei Province, about 200 kilometres from Beijing, and known for its population of thousands of acrobats, contortionists and magicians, who all vie for a shot at the big time.
"It's a little town of acrobats, that's what it's known for, lots of people start trying so young. They start with doing lots of tricks, they become famous and they like it," she explains.
Three years ago she put down her magic tricks and took the helm of a circus troupe that takes on many monikers, depending where in the world its tumblers are tumbling.
Here, the troupe takes on the name Zirka Circus, with 26 limber young performers plucked from ballet and gymnastics academies from around China to audition for a two-year contract to tour New Zealand.
Many of them have been trained from the time they were old enough to attend school and the circus is their first opportunity to visit abroad, the director says.
Among them, a slender 11-year-old girl, who manoeuvres her petite frame about Manfeild en pointe while her fellow performers set up the big top. The youngest of the troupe, teeny-tiny wunderkind Fei Fei Deng is on her tip toes constantly, Hou jokes, because "she thinks it makes her look taller".
An embodiment of the fairytale ideal of running away with the circus, the young girl, who speaks no English, has already spent the first of two years away from home to pursue her dream of becoming an acrobat.
She performs a demonstration with 18-year-old Hui Hu, effortlessly contorting her body into streamlined perfection, grinning sweetly for the camera as she assembles her meticulously trained limbs into a neat split while perching upside down in a handstand atop Hu's head.
Fei Fei was trained as a ballerina, Hou says. But a chance audition for the circus at her dance academy in China blew selectors away. "She was brought to auditions with a few others by her ballet school and we were stunned by her, she was the best - of course."
She has been on tour ever since - and a star of the show with Hu in their pas de deux, when she does a ballet on his head and shoulders. She has come a long way.
"She prefers not to smile in pictures," says Hou, "she thinks it makes her look better, but she has learnt to smile since she came to New Zealand."
During the past week the performers have wowed Whanganui crowds and have now set up shop in the grass oval precinct in Feilding's Manfeild Park, with their first show last night.
For those who miss out this weekend, the circus will be back in New Zealand in March. But returning audiences can watch assured they are seeing something new, Hou says.
The international circus troupe undergoes transformations every two years, with auditions gathering a new stable of about 100 performers to tour around the world biennially.
The shows have taken them from Hong Kong to Holland and the Pacific Islands.
The majority of the troupe speak no English, picking it up bit by bit during their time on our shores.
But no matter - instead they use their elastic-limbed bodies to speak volumes. Highlights of the show include a mind-boggling motorbike stunt performed by a dozen acrobats in the "ball of death", and the ballet inspired pas de deux between the two young performers.
The performance structure is influenced by wixua, a Chinese genre of martial arts-themed literature, drawing from fantasy swordplay, chivalry and romance that has become popular in action games and films.
Watching every show this weekend will be Hou's 2-year-old son, Orson, named after his father's 1940s screen idol Orson Welles.
"He loves the show," Hou says. "He has watched it about 100 times and still loves it. He screams and claps, it's so funny."
Manfeild chief executive Heather Verry says the show, styled on the coattails of the globally lauded Cirque du Soleil troupe, is something different for audiences accustomed to a "traditional" circus format.
"Times have changed. Many people no longer feel comfortable seeing animals, particularly non-domesticated species . . . and many countries, including The United Kingdom only last week, have banned their use. The Zirka Circus comes to us with a fantastic reputation and a fresh outlook."
* Zirka Circus' Out of This World will be in Feilding for six shows at Manfeild Park until Sunday December 16. It will then move to Levin at St Joseph's Catholic School from Wednesday, December 19, to Sunday, December 23.
- © Fairfax NZ News