Dear girl, that's the real lord of the ring

Tan Weiyun
Yan Xiaoyu has dedicated her childhood to acrobatics, but the journey from a grassroot tumbler to a big star may require not just hard effort and talent but also patience and luck.
Tan Weiyun

Yan Xiaoyu hides in a backstage corner and stares toward the center of the ring, her face indistinct in the shadows but her eyes glistening in the bright stage lights.

When the leading performer begins spinning in a head-high hoop swiftly and rapidly in the ring center, the act peaks to a crescendo, then the performer basks in the applause of the crowd.

And Yan, a stand-in for the regular acrobat, 17, must wait behind the scenes every night in full make-up and costume. She has no idea when she will be called on to fill in for somebody else.

"I wish I could do my hoop rotations on stage one day," Yan says with an enthusiastic smile.

"However, I'm sure I'd be really scared on that day."

Yan, a native of Liaoning Province, has dedicated her entire childhood to acrobatics, but the journey from a grassroot tumbler to a big star may require not just hard effort and talent, but also patience and luck.

Yan is participating in the second edition of "ERA Shanghai," a glittering gold name on the city's performance stage.

It has been performed nearly every night at Shanghai Circus World, over 5,000 times in front of more than 5 million guests in the last 15 years.

Dear girl, that's the real lord of the ring
Sun Chao / SHINE

Yan Xiaoyu is preparing for "ERA Shanghai 2" by practicing hoop rotation, which requires her to spin at a high speed on an iron ring with a diameter of 1.88 meters.

The new edition, "ERA Shanghai 2," which was created, designed and choreographed last year, integrates fashion elements, technology, stage art and Shanghai-style acrobatics.

When the "new normal" returns after the pandemic, people will return to the ringside. More young acrobats are needed by the circus ensemble.

A senior at Shanghai Circus School, Yan stood out for her abilities and dedication. She was chosen to be an intern for the troupe and joined the new performance as a sub for the lead acrobat last August during her final year of study at the school.

She's working on Cyr Wheel, which requires her to spin at a high speed in a hefty iron ring with a diameter of 1.88 meters. In order to spin, she must also work with the principal actor.

The duo spins in the ring together and performs additional daring stunts.

"I can perform dangerous stunts like jumps, spins and somersaults, but I have no idea how to act like an actor.

"It's difficult for me," Yan admits.

Acting is more important in today's acrobatic performances than accomplishing feats of physical strength, balance and agility.

"ERA Shanghai 2" depicts a young couple's love story, which frequently embarrasses Yan, who is required to act affectionately and make eye contact with her partner.

Her daily routine in the ensemble consists of spinning and spinning that often forces her to throw up. She trains all day to get as many spins as possible in a minute.

"It's okay. I'm getting used to it.

"I've embraced sprains, bruises and even fractures as part of my acrobatic life," she adds.

Yan started to train in acrobatics when she was 8 years old. "I loved doing those exciting stunts, such as somersaults and flying high in the air," she says.

At the age of 11, Yan was picked by the Shanghai Circus School. She left her hometown in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, in northeast China, and started her acrobatic studies and rigid dorm life in Shanghai with 100 other teenage students.

For more than a decade, the school in Shanghai's southwest, has produced a great number of talented acrobats. As China's top acrobatic institute, it enrolls students from all over China.

Children are taught circus techniques, including stunts, contortion, high-flying, magic, clown shows and more, while also learning Chinese, arithmetic and English in the same way as the middle school students do.

They normally begin training at the age of 9 or 10 and graduate with a technical secondary school diploma.

Dear girl, that's the real lord of the ring
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Students hone their skills on the springboard.

Admittedly, acrobatics, which involves skillful control of the body and artistic agility, requires extremely hard work and often leads to injuries.

Children who pursue acrobatics as a career are typically those who have switched from sports schools, dance or gymnastics teams.

After all, they have a better chance of becoming an acrobatic superstar than earning an Olympic medal.

After one or two years, the children are divided into different programs based on their physical characteristics.

The balancing programs require greater strength in the arms, such as jacking up a giant vat on the head, while the somersault demands stronger leg muscles, a lighter upper body and more explosive power.

Dear girl, that's the real lord of the ring
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

An injured girl looks on as the girls practice on a monocycle.

Since the first day of school, Yan has adhered to a rigid daily schedule. She gets up early and spends the entire morning doing countless somersaults.

"If someone makes one wrong move, the whole class is 'punished' and have to do the somersaults all over again," Yan says.

In the second year of school, she was picked to practice ring swinging, a large ring hung up high in the air. "It's exciting. I love the feeling of flying around in midair," she says.

Yan switched to practicing the loop rotation – on the ground – after being chosen as a sub actress for the "ERA Shanghai 2" company last year. She now shuttles from her school in the city's southwest to the circus in the northeast twice a week.

But she now enjoys a little more freedom outside of the stringent school dorm life. She is permitted to use a cellphone, sleeps longer in the morning, and gets paid during the internship. She even sneaked out of the circus once, the first time she got the chance to tour the city she has been living in for seven years. In theory, a student under the age of 18 is not permitted to go out alone.

Yan is still waiting for her big break as a leading actress.

"I don't think about it too much. At least, I've got a job, and a new life ahead," she says.

Dear girl, that's the real lord of the ring
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Boys take part in dance lessons. Acting and dancing, rather than physical strength, balance and agility, are increasingly important in today's acrobatics shows.

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