Chinese State Circus, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

On a fine day in Beijing's Jingshan park, you'll find dozens of elderly pensioners disporting themselves in the sun. And not just doing tai chi: there's a game that the old women play with a shuttlecock, catching it on their heels and kicking it backwards over their heads, in a way that suggests that physical dexterity is hard-wired in their genetic make-up, at an infinitely higher level than it is in ours.

So we come to a Chinese circus expecting to be dazzled. The Chinese State Circus currently occupying the Queen Elizabeth Hall is actually an amalgam of seven different troupes, including the Peking Opera and the Shaolin Wu-Shu monk-warriors. And we already know those warriors, since kung fu was their creation. This martial art was not originally designed for combat: it was a form of gymnastics intended to counterbalance the stasis of meditation, but after a while the monks who practised it got around to absorbing sledgehammer blows to the chest, and hanging by their necks from trees. It was tailor-made for showing off.

On come the performers at the start, led by the yellow-liveried Monkey King, dancers and gymnasts and warriors and princesses in colourful profusion. Then it's down to business as five men juggle heavy poles on their noses and heels, and somersault beneath them, making it look as though the poles stay aloft through mystic levitation.

Then, after an operatic scene, a strong-man walks on, not with indecently bulging biceps, but able to twirl a massive cast-iron bar on the back of his neck as though it was only made of balsa wood.

Then comes some Peking Opera magic: five young men who dive through an ever-higher series of hoops as though they were fish swimming in an aquarium. Just once the top hoop trembles, and one trembles instinctively for the man who has brushed it: failure in this game is, if not quite a firing-squad matter, not far off.

Blink and you miss it: neither I nor my companion see how the lady with long sleeves throws two daggers past a colleague's nose, so fast does it happen. And we're dazzled by the monks, one of whom rests on a bed of swords while another lies on top of him with a bed-of-nails sandwich between them, before a third hammers a tile on top. I just have my doubts about the act where one warrior breaks four bricks on another's shaven head: they seem to crumble rather readily.

Yet I'm breath-taken at the sight of a man spinning in mid-air on a spike impaling his bare belly, and I can hardly bear to watch as another sticks two sharp spears into his neck, while a friend breaks a paving-stone on his back. And when we come to the slack-rope act, I can't believe it. The rope is very thin, but on it the acrobat does handstands and somersaults, before unicycling with his hands on the pedals. And when the girl contortionist - why is it always a girl? - writhes gracefully with a lighted candelabra on each foot, each hand, and on her forehead, I'm filled with wonder like everyone else.

Two of the acts in this lovely show are positively surreal: the girl who comes on like a comedia dell'arte figure and seems to replace her face a dozen times, and the wrestling match in which I'm convinced I'm watching two independently threshing pairs of legs, but which turns out to be just one man.

Two sylphs with parasols on a high wire provide a perfect final act, and this company's pair are fabulous. Even when casually jumping over each other, they're decorous, giving no sense of effort or danger. China may carry off all the trophies in the Beijing Olympics, but no Olympic triumph will surpass all this.

To 6 Jan, returns only

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