When Angela Chang met her husband 30 years ago, she knew little about acrobatics. A ballet dancer since the age of 5, Chang could perform an arabesque, a cabriolé, a grand jeté and any manner of pirouette, but a back handspring was something else.
But that all changed when she married Danny Chang, an acrobat who began performing professionally with his family when he was 10 years old and inherited his grandfather’s performing-arts troupe shortly before he and Chang married.
Combining their skills — Angela Chang’s knack for dance choreography and Danny Chang’s athleticism and leadership — the Changs built one of China’s most acclaimed acrobatic touring companies, The Golden Dragon Acrobats.
A 25-person ensemble of male and female gymnasts ranging in age from 17 to 25, the troupe’s shows are a mix of mysticism, contemporary dance, Herculean strength and flexibility. From county fairs in small towns to sophisticated performing-arts centers, hundreds of Chinese acrobatic troupes tour venues throughout the United States every year, yet it’s the Golden Dragon Acrobats that make the most headlines.
In November 2005, the company made its Broadway debut to a sold-out audience at the New Victory Theater. The seven-week run earned the Changs two New York Drama Desk nominations — Unique Theatrical Experience and Best Choreography.
“A visit from the Golden Dragon Acrobats is special,” wrote New York Times theater critic Gia Kourlas following the company’s 2008 performance at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts during its 30th anniversary tour. “It’s not often you see a man balancing upside down on one hand atop a half-dozen stacked chairs placed frighteningly close to the front of the stage.”
Maybe it’s the ballet component that sets the group apart. The troupe doesn’t just tumble, juggle and balance on sterile well-padded equipment. A tiny female acrobat will balance atop a male acrobat’s head and, then, stepping down to her partner’s flattened palm, she’ll spin slowly en pointe like a wind-up ballerina in a jewelry box.
“After I met Danny,” says Chang, 55, “I realized acrobatics and dance belong in the same family.”
Regarding the company’s almost hypnotic costumes, Chang says she tries to keep as close to tradition as possible, but with the rise in popularity of circus acts, such as Cirque du Soleil, many of her young stars favor modern Spandex leotards over the billowy oriental outfits of their ancestors.
“Every year I have to run back to Taiwan to get costumes,” Chang says in the mildly irritated tone of a woman who just realized after grocery shopping that she has to return to the store for a carton of milk. “Years ago, we’d use only traditional costumes, but now the young generations want something newer.”
The props are as much a part of the show as the costumes and choreography. The art of Chinese acrobatics dates back 2,500 years and is rooted in the everyday life of Chinese laborers, hence the juggling of wicker rings, tables, chairs, jars, plates and bowls.
Golden Dragon Acrobats twirl and juggle dainty parasols with their hands and feet. They balance end tables on the tips of their toes. They give new meaning to headstands by performing them on top of each other’s heads, while spinning plates and walking backward. Like court jesters, they clamber into giant wheels and circle the stage.
“Sometimes when I see the performers on stage, they look like they’re having so much fun, I have to jump in and join them,” Chang says.
Although Chang is aware of the controversy surrounding her industry — particularly the notion that children are subject to grueling workout regimens and exhausting performance schedules — she says she only hires performers after they’ve graduated from high school.
“I’ve seen some companies using 9- and 10-year-olds,” Chang says bluntly. “Children still need to grow. Their bodies and their knowledge are not ready yet. They need a stable life to practice and get a normal education. It’s not good to have such young children in commercial performances. It’s not right.”
The company travels all year, breaking only once in May before hitting the road again for its summer tour dates. This year, the performers celebrated Christmas earlier this month after performing in the Southwest.
“It’s OK,” Chang says merrily. “We had a little celebration in the hotel between Plano, Texas, and Santa Fe, N.M.”
IF YOU GO
The Golden Dragon Acrobats are performing through Jan. 2, at The Players Theatre. Performances are at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $32 for adults and $18 for children ages 16 and under. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit www.theplayers.org. For more on the Golden Dragon Acrobats, visit www.goldendragon-