The acrobats--men, women and even one 11-year-old boy--twist, flip, and contort their bodies into unimaginable positions. They fly through the air and then land gracefully as the audience members clap in approval.
The performers, who hail from half a world away in China, aren’t performing in Las Vegas, New York, or even Dallas. They are showcasing their skills in the zany tourist city of Branson, Missouri, population 11,000. Known for its abundance of entertainment theaters featuring shows including Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, a museum dedicated to the Titanic, and the amusement park Silver Dollar City, Branson attracts visitors from both near and far.
It was in 1998 that Lizhi Zhao visited Branson as a representative of the Chinese government while conducting marketing research as a troupe leader, according to Bay Wang, theatre manager for Acrobats of China. Since then, visitors have been turning out to watch the feats of strength, balance, and agility by the contortionists.
“[Zhao] had traveled in the United States before while he was the troupe leader, but he encountered Branson, Missouri, and thought it was a very unique town to introduce the Chinese acrobatic culture, and then he started bringing in the acrobats of China,” Wang said.
Branson, Zhao believed, was the perfect place to introduce the acrobats because the tourist destination focused so heavily on entertainment shows, Wang said, adding that Zhao even wrote a guide about Branson for the Chinese government.
Over the years, Zhao cemented his status in Branson and Missouri as an astute businessman.
In 2001, Zhao and the New Shanghai Circus were nominated as "small business of the year" in Branson, the first international company to receive such an honor. A year later, Zhao received an honorary doctorate degree from Williams Woods University in Fulton, Missouri, and in 2003, the mayor of St. Louis honored him with the title “A Friend to St. Louis.”
Over the years, Zhao has brought in new acrobats to wow audiences. There are currently about 40 acrobats in the troupe who live, work, and train together.
Twenty-five-year-old Tingting Yang hails from Yantai in China’s Shandong province and has been performing for 12 years. She came to America as a performer with the show for the first time in the spring, and said she feels relaxed and enjoys the tranquil environment of Branson. It’s a quiet but famous tourist destination, she said through an interpreter.
Congcong Chen, 30, from Jinan, also in Shandong province, performed in the U.S. years ago. She was a professional dancer and magician before being selected to become a part of the acrobatic troupe. She’s now one of the lead performers in the bicycle act, where approximately 10 female performers ride on one bicycle.
Other acts include hoop diving, a human juggling act, and pole climbing.
Chen said she loves the enthusiasm that audience members show after each act, and she enjoys shaking hands and signing autographs for people after the shows.
The hardest part of performing, Chen and Yang say, is the fear of messing up on stage during the show, so they make sure to practice enough so the moves are second-nature to them. The acrobats often practice an hour or two each day, and then perform one or two shows per day, seven days a week, according to Wang.
Moving from China to the other side of the world in middle America may seem like it would cause a culture shock, but Wang says that’s not the case.
The performers are also provided with interpreters when necessary and offered English classes to help them communicate when they are shopping around town or traveling alone.
“The acrobat performances are getting more and more popular and they [the performers] are very well traveled, so they are very open-minded in terms of cultures and different living environments,” she said.