Roll up for the contortionists

The Chinese State Circus provides a glittering tour de force. And there's not a clown in sight
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The Independent Culture

Larry de Wit has been the tour manager for the Chinese State Circus since it first came to Britain in March 2000. This year's particular acrobatic troupe is from Cheng Chun, a town outside Beijing.

"Throw all your ideas of traditional English circus out of your head," says De Wit. He used to be a flying trapeze artist himself in the early Seventies; now he is organising 30 of China's finest circus performers, led by their trainer and guru Zhan Sheng Li.

And sometimes they're not easy to organise: "One year they took a walk down the dual carriageway, thinking the hard shoulder was a pathway, and ended up on the M4," their manager reminisces.

The Chinese State Circus first went on the road 50 years ago, drawing on a tradition from the Qin dynasty of the second century BC. "They are our equivalent of the minstrels," says De Wit. "This is not Billy Smart's Circus or Chipperfield's; it is a more theatrical experience, with no announce- ments, no tent poles to block your view - and no animals."

Most of the performers were headhunted by scouts from the Chinese Performing Arts Association when they were as young as four years old. They include the Gao twins, knotted contortionists who balance head-to-head while spinning 16 plates on sticks, and gymnasts who are catapulted from springboards. For the finale, the full company puts on a colourful, costumed performance of the "Lion Dance", Chinese New Year-style.

Some of the more gruelling acts include one member of the circus using a sledgehammer to smash four house-bricks - which are balanced on a colleague's head at the time. "He breaks the bricks, and with a bit of luck the head stays in place," De Wit laughs. "Yes, it is risky, but each performer has trained for perhaps 12 years."

So far there has only been one accident, when a tower of chairs with seven female performers balancing on top collapsed. That was the fault of the table, though. "It was uneven," De Wit says. "It's precarious anyway. The human pyramid is 8m high by the time they all get up there. It's the only act where we use safety harnesses. One false move and they all fall down like a pack of cards."

In another act, performers jump through hoops, the last of which is about 2m above the ground and 50cm wide. And if that sounds mundane, think again. De Wit explains: "The final hoop is revolving on a pedestal. One chap does a run at it and throws a back somersault through it. Most people just wouldn't tackle this type of feat, especially in a circus."

The Queen Elizabeth Hall, on the South Bank, usually prefers to play host to classical musicians. "But the Chinese State Circus was designed for theatres and stages, not muddy big tops, so in this respect the Queen Elizabeth Hall is ideal," says De Wit. "You will be taken into another world as soon as the show begins."

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (020-7960 4242; 26 December - 2 January