I’m not expecting much as I take my seat for the acrobat show at Chaoyang Theater. The Chinese love cheesy music, and I’m beginning to have flashbacks to cruise-ship cabaret shows of the early 1990s. But then the somersaults begin — through three towering hoops — and I realize Cirque Du Soleil is about to get a run for its money.
Acrobat troupes have a long history in Beijing, and today these shows feature the nation’s most agile and flexible performers. For the next hour, my jaw hangs open as the show — part Carnaval, part circus — unfolds with physics- and death-defying precision. One heavily spandexed performer flips vertically 10 feet and lands on a pole balanced on the shoulder of a fellow acrobat. The crowd erupts into applause. A dozen young girls appear on a tiny platform, contorting their bodies like invertebrates. Two muscled teenage boys descend from the ceiling in what look like two man-size hamster wheels, which swoop around on a central axis while the boys — blindfolded — leap and flip in the air. But nothing prepares me for the final act, in which 12 girls balance on one moving bicycle while they’re waving to fans. It is something you have to see to believe.
For centuries, Beijing showcased China’s most glorious visual masterpieces, and the capital continues to attract the country’s premier creative forces today. Halfway between the city center and the airport, the hulking industrial buildings of the city’s 798 Art District still ooze with the gritty manufacturing soul of its former life as an electronics factory. But now the assembly lines have been replaced by art. Here, concrete and rusty steel frame the galleries and performance spaces fueling the city’s hunger for inspiration and the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for modern Chinese art.
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a huge nonprofit space guarded by plastic dinosaurs sculpted by Sui Jianguo, highlights some of China’s brightest emerging talent in film, painting and sculpture, while Pace Beijing, an outpost of New York’s The Pace Gallery, blends exhibitions by China’s leading artists such as Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun with those of international luminaries like Chuck Close and Takashi Murakami. But the magic of 798 is in getting lost in the side streets and stumbling upon unique creative expressions that you’d never expect to see hanging on a gallery wall. Unlike New York’s Chelsea or London’s Soho, 798 boasts a lively artist crowd busy at work in studios interspersed among the galleries, and these people are more than happy to talk. So come prepared to mingle. Who knows? You may just befriend China’s next artistic superstar.