Chinese State Circus Comes To Belfast

The Chinese Ministry of Culture will be present - artistic director Phillip Gandley hopes they like it

In the past few years, Belfast has played host to a dazzling array of circus spectaculars. The Moscow State Circus, Cirque du Soleil, Cirque de Glace and the Circus of Horrors are among an ever-growing roll call of international extravaganzas to grace the Ulster stage.

It’s a far cry from the days when going to the circus in Northern Ireland meant traipsing along to a rain-soaked big top to gawp at glum-looking clowns and mangy horses.

This weekend, the Chinese State Circus pitches up for three days and nights at the Waterfront Hall. But with so many events to choose from, what sets this lot apart?

Sure, the logistics (the show features 45 artistes, plus directors, interpreters and five tonnes of props) are impressive, but despite being part of a traditional art form with a history going back more than 2,000 years the assembled acrobats and martial artists have their work cut out.

Artistic director Phillip Gandey believes the Chinese State Circus remains a step ahead of its competitors, however. ‘Recently, at the Royal Albert Hall, the new production of Cirque du Soleil featured five girls on the high unicycles as their top act,’ he remarks. ‘Well, we’ve got six – and we’re not asking people to pay £50 or £60 per ticket.’

Indeed, Gandey and Co are doing their best to ensure bums on seats, with tickets for the Belfast run priced between £12 and £22.50. In the current economic climate, there seems to be a conscious effort to keep things as affordable as possible.

‘At the end of the day, we’ve got 12 or 14,000 seats to fill,’ comments Gandey. ‘I feel we give value for money, in as much as we’ve got 30 top performers onstage in the show, including the Shaolin Warriors, who you would expect to pay more than that for by themselves.’

The 2011 production is based on the classic tale of Hua Mulan, one of Chinese folklore’s most famous heroines. The action-packed display promises precision acrobatics, Shaolin martial arts and colourful characters from Peking Opera. All the performers come from China and are trained in the Oriental tradition of 'Ma Xi', or horse theatre.

‘We’re closely watched by the Chinese government to make sure that the standard and the well-being of the performers is catered for,’ says Gandey. ‘This is a Chinese Ministry of Culture project – it’s not just like a “normal” circus – and the ambassador is actually coming to the show in Belfast. This is the largest group of Chinese performers in Western Europe.’

Gandey guarantees the show will ‘stretch the limits of human achievement’, describing it as ‘circus as you have never seen it’. It will appeal to fans of all ages, he says.

‘This is a completely new production that has never been seen in Belfast before, and what we’ve done to make it a little bit more accessible to children, as well as adults, is we’ve added a couple of cartoon characters, the Monkey King and the Pig, who are as popular in China through their fables as Mickey Mouse would be in the West.’

The millennia-old Mulan legend has spawned a variety of cinematic and theatrical adaptations over the years, the most famous of which is probably the 1998 Disney movie. While acknowledging that a lot of younger audience members will be familiar with Uncle Walt’s animated blockbuster, Gandey insists that the Chinese State Circus is following its own path.

‘We’ve kept the original story of a young girl who went to fight to take her father’s place to fight for the Emperor,’ he says, ‘but we’ve taken some poetic licence with it – as people do with stories that are 2,000 years old! The Disney film was their story. We’ve taken it our way.’

Gandey is a persuasive character, and so he should be. The natural born entertainer has been in the circus business since childhood, becoming the youngest ever big top director at 17. He has been running the Chinese State Circus since the 1990s, and is as enthused as when he first saw the Oriental acrobats perform.

‘Every time I go to China I discover a new act,’ he gushes. ‘It can be in a remote town in the north, minus 25 outside – and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.’ Gandey praises China’s commitment to its performers, asserting that it is ‘the state funding over there that keeps these acrobats at this level’.

The impresario boasts that ‘no project is too great nor too small, no logistic too difficult or concept too complex’, naming an ice show in the Saudi Arabia desert as perhaps the most challenging in his 30-plus years in the game.

‘We were literally trying to freeze the Red Sea,’ he laughs. ‘It was 35 degrees outside, we had a 4,000-seater big top and by the skin of our teeth we managed to create the ice floor with a couple of hours to go before the first performance.’

As for animals, Gandey’s company stopped using them in their shows more than 20 years ago, in the face of mounting public disapproval. Today, the Chinese State Circus features only human performers. Gandey nevertheless remains open-minded.

‘I personally believe that if animals are looked after properly, then they do have a place in circus,’ he offers. ‘But we changed because the public’s opinion changed. At the end of the day, I’m not here to dictate to people. My business as a showman is to give the public what they want.’

The Chinese State Circus: Mulan runs at the Waterfront, Belfast, from February 11 to 13.