From his office in Branson, Mo., or his company's second headquarters in Shanghai, China, International Special Attractions producer Michael Wilson makes it his job to keep track of the more than 17,000 acrobats performing in China.
Wilson has been bringing Chinese acrobats on tours of the United States since 1984, and his group, the Incredible! Acrobats of China, has sold out shows on Broadway in 1999, 2002 and 2003.
"We're familiar with what's going in the Chinese acrobatic community," Wilson said. "There are national competitions we know of and attend. We watch their shows through the year over there in China. And when we have an occasion to bring acrobats here, we'll go and audition and see which troupe has the best combination of acts for our touring shows."
The Incredible! Acrobats of China are in the middle of their first trip to Alaska and will stop in Juneau for one-night only, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Tickets are almost sold out.
The show will include contortionists, a group of girls spinning plates at the end of bamboo sticks while they tumble across the stage, Chinese traditional conjuring magic, divers that run and leap through hoops set up four to seven feet in the air, girls spinning the Chinese yo-yo (or diabolo), and a series of aerial acts involving teeter boards, leather straps and rings.
The group includes about 20 acrobats, ages 15 to 23.
Wilson has two to four acrobatic shows touring the country at any one time. There's now also a New Shanghai Theatre in Branson, Mo., run mostly by Chinese, that's independent of the touring groups.
what: new shanghai circus, incredible! acrobats of china
when: 7 p.m. tuesday, jan. 31
where: juneau-douglas high school auditorium
"When you're selecting a list of acts, you have to think of how the featured performers in one act are critical assistants in other acts," Wilson said. "Someone who is at the top of a chair stack in one act may be an assistant in the plate-spinning act, may be a diabolo spinner in another act, and might be a contortionist in a fourth act. You really have to think about the interrelatedness of the acts and performers and the way the team works together when you're presenting a show."
There are roughly 170 troupes and 17,000 acrobats in China. The country holds a huge national acrobatic competition every year, and many of the performers travel to international meets to compete against other acrobatic and circus acts. Last year, Gao Shengsheng, a teenager now in the Branson show, won the first Chinese gold medal at the International Acrobatic Competition in Paris.
"We are very aware of who's winning what award, and we work very hard to bring those folks over here," Wilson said.
Like its powerhouse youth sports programs, China has huge acrobatic academies that children audition for when they're between the ages of 7 and 10. The kids are judged on their physical aptitude, their basic skills and balance and the physiotypes of their parents. The first several years of the school are devoted to basic gymnastics, physical strengthening and limber skills, as well as reading, writing and math. Once the kids reach 12 or 13, they're singled off to do various acts based on whatever skills they've developed.
"If they have exceptional balance they might do a high act," Wilson said. "If they have strength, they might be a catcher in a tumbling act. If they have a good personality, they might be guided to do comedy routines."
Younger students are given two to four months leave from the academies to perform on international tours. Graduates perform full-time. All of the performers in the Juneau show have either studied or are studying in one of the schools.