The Peking Acrobats at Zellerbach rate a single word: fabulous

A throng of performers balances on a bicycle during the finale of The Peking Acrobats. Photo: Tom Meinhold Photography.
A throng of performers balances on a bicycle during the finale of The Peking Acrobats. Photo: Tom Meinhold Photography.

If you’ve seen one acrobatic troupe, you’ve seen ‘em all — except, perhaps, for an occasional act in Cirque du Soleil.

Or every one of The Peking Acrobats.

I caught the latest rendition of the latter at a Cal Performances matinee the other day at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

It was fabulous.

Basing their work on folk traditions that date back to 221 B.C., the youngsters push their balancing and gymnastics beyond anyone’s expectations.


And the Jigu! Thunder Drums of China company that’s been inserted into the tour for the first time as “special guests” also are fabulous.

The dexterous acrobatic troupe, which first came to the United States in 1986 and currently features performers ranging from 13 to 25, particularly enjoys defying gravity.

And contorting lithe bodies.

And risking youthful life and limb without a net.

Some of the acts are indescribably complex. To be believed, they must be witnessed. Despite seeing them with my own big brown eyes, I still found several unbelievable.

Being human, the acrobats are not perfect. But when they err, they do it again and inevitably get it right.

The showstopper clearly was a young man who put four wine bottles on a tabletop, then carefully balanced the first of eight white chairs on them. After he stacked high the other seven and was almost into the rafters, he performed three handstands, the last on one hand.

Extraordinary. Inspired. Breathtaking.

And fabulous.

His solo was followed by five girls balancing on the same six chairs, stacked not as high but maybe even more treacherously because they were diagonal.

Before the stunning finale, which featured almost a dozen performers perched delicately on a single bicycle, the combination visual-audial cornucopia provided so much more, most of it unique:

A guy who juggled while standing on one leg and while tap dancing on two, a clown who tripled as emcee and tumbler, stunningly choreographed gymnastics and dancing and drumsticks, a young man who stuck four bricks on his head so they could be smashed with an immense hammer, a man held mid-air on the points of four spears, and a lion dance with four dragon-like critters animated by eight males.

Plus, of course, acrobats who jumped from pole to pole, others who danced gracefully on long fabric, females who spun plates while twisting their bodies every which way, foot-jugglers who rotated drums, and a group that playfully juggled hats, hats and more hats.

The center-stage and background music was unusually wide-ranging, from booming synchronized drumming to almost eerie sounds emanating from traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu, a small bowed instrument with only two strings, and the yangquin, a dulcimer played with bamboo mallets.

Most melodies were unfamiliar, but that didn’t hold true for a medley that included Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” and the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

The audience, which mainly consisted of young children and bald men, presumably fathers of the kids, applauded everything.

I’d say the crowd found The Peking Acrobats, well, fabulous.

“Calm down,” squeals the moderation-safety valve in my head. “This review’s become an over-gush.” But I can’t help myself — individually and collectively, they’re that good.

A cautionary announcement before the two-hour-plus fast-paced show told us not to try the tricks at home.

For me, that message was unnecessary.

I’m neither double-jointed nor willing to risk breaking every bone in my body.

The final Peking Acrobats show at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley for this tour will be a matinee today at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $56. Information: www.calperfs.berkeley.edu/ or (510) 642-9988. And if you seek other excellent choices for families, Cal Performances offers Michael Cooper’s “Masked Marvels & Wondertales” on Feb. 9 and “Aesop Bops!” with David Gonzalez and the Yak Yak Band on April 6.

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